Part 1 - Prologue
It’s been a long time since I wrote… A long time… but it hasn’t been long at all, for I have been happy; not without worries and concerns, not without the nagging irritations befalling most of us each day, but in general; a solid steady happiness not relying on purchases or objects… A ‘long time’, which has now become such a relative term, it has been good – good is insignificant, it’s been great, but by good I mean in the positive, rather than some insufficient word like ‘nice’ or ‘dull’ (insufficient in a theatrical sense rather than an appropriate one, but then I am – I humbly acknowledge – a writer), and so sitting in front of a computer and delving into realms stepping away from happiness require has been… challenging.
The paragraph above is incomplete… twofold so! I must constantly remind myself anyone reading this who has not already familiarised themselves with the labyrinthian convolutions of my simple works on time will read the paragraph above and hurl the book across the room in disgust, or more likely gently put down their laptop grumbling at my inconsistencies (if they only produced rubber laptops, eh…). To be brief – yes, both unlikely, and a temporal joke, if only a fleeting one – the more absorbed you are in a thing the less you are aware of time, when you have no interest in an activity (distraction – but for more detail you will have to read, and therefore – discover – other writings, but dear reader… if these tantalising tips tempt a taste… then seek out these treatise and bewilder with me), time will pass more slowly (thus, only the truly stupid may be particularly happy – ouch!). Therefore, as the last eleven months since my last period of high productivity (and I intentionally – perhaps you begin to realise I intentionally use every term – make the work seem less related to creativity and more related to the commercial world), have passed in a flurry of delightful moments, glued together upon a foundation of general contentment, in less than the proverbial ‘blink’, I presume myself a very fortunate, if not intellectually invigorated, soul.
The second error… the title of the work may have hinted towards, is one of a technical nature… for all good writers know somewhere within the first paragraph of any… serious work… should lie the general intention of the work – and though I have waxed loquacious about time, mood and… well… me (although, we must all be aware a work couldn’t be a work without ‘time’, ‘mood’, and… umm… ‘me’), none of these were a fire sufficient to ignite this extinct old volcano into such voluble eruption. Thus, without any further ado (at least for the moment – what bliss if a moment lasted a lifetime), let’s get right to the point… of the tail…
Part 2 - Adoption Day
The first part of our tale starts like any other… romance, adultery, jealousy and financial ruin – ok, perhaps while not exactly like any other tale, though a few spring to mind; none if it is exactly unheard of…
Allow me to gently take hold and mould your imagination… A girl, beautiful enough to do a little modelling, trapped in an abusive relationship. A boy, steady and faithful, confusedly unable to keep a girlfriend long enough to make her his wife (perhaps because his only real intention was to settle down with his ‘soul mate’ as soon as possible, rather than going through all those tedious actions and events which make someone your ‘soul mate’ – you know… dating, holidays, adventures, arguments, troubles, victories, togetherness, separation, etc… all that nonsense). These two were hurled together by gusts of fate (perhaps I’m being just a tad melodramatic)…
Candy was one of my friends. She had felt herself trapped in a relationship with a mentally and occasionally physically abusive partner. She was a country girl newly arrived in the ‘big city’, and the only person she knew was her [originally] charming boyfriend. She had nowhere to go and very little in the form of resources with which to take her.
I had tried to manfully step in and offer a little support, but apart from an emotional shoulder to cry upon she refused all my aid. Eventually, one straw or another snapped the beast of burden and I ended up with her on my couch for a few days until she realised all was not lost and began to make a more sensible semblance of that confused jigsaw we often misinterpret as life.
At about the same time, while away in Korea for a year studying for his Masters, Leo was deserted by his girl for a more not only present, but shall we say… a little more dynamic replacement.
Both of them knew each other through me – one from my workplace and the other from sports I regularly played with some friends. Little did I know they began chatting on social media…
The rebound… you’ve been with someone for a long time and they are gone… It would be better were they dead, but did they do the civil thing and allow you your noble despair, becoming a ideal you can wander around remembering with nostalgic reverence – oh no, they just up and left you for a better model! The widow or widower is a romantic figure… living on with the memory of love, untouchable as the gracefully navigate through the ugly jostling dating masses, but the jilted lover… another story entirely! I wasn’t good enough – and [insert name – we all have one] was. It’s one thing to place a lost one at the zenith of your illusions, and quite another to find yourself at the nadir of your own realities.
So… the model needed what…? After being made to feel small and weak, incapable and ineffective she needed exactly what Leo could offer – a steady, immovable, caring, hardworking ready-made husband. So, what did Leo receive from this new partnership… a beautiful, exciting, modern girl – a significant [social, and thus in a culture heavily reliant on appearances, psychological] upgrade from the rather ‘plain Jane’ he’d previously devoted all his affection towards.
Months after he returned from Korea they were married – they bought a flat, they bought a dog, they probably even had matching tracksuits, but that’s a piece of information even an adventurous and extreme reporter such as myself dared not unfold.
Now, I’m not much of a one to meddle… I’d much rather people make a grand mess of things so I have something to write about… but I did see this one coming and in my own subtle way (you know, radio talk-shows, documentaries on the telly, sides of buses, billboards, etc…), tried to warn them they were not right for each other.
The problem as I saw it was Leo made her feel too safe for his own good… She was gorgeous, modern – liked to go out, have a few drinks, party with her friends, but the oppressive nature of her previous relationship meant she’d had to feel guilty and secretive about all these actions. Leo didn’t mind, as long as she was home in the evening, he’d be there with the house clean, the food cooked and the telly on.
She grew more confident, she began to realise how pretty, intelligent and exciting she was, and men began to rather obviously fall in love with her… until her boss did! The older man… knowledgeable, confident, fun, interesting, perhaps most dangerous of all – romantic.
I could go on, but I suddenly remembered this has almost nothing to do with them at all – oh, my digressions – so, to cut to the chase – she left him for the married fellow.
On both their wages they could just afford the repayments on the flat they had bought. Now that she had left, he was faced with two alternatives: a) sell their (I shall return to that), house or b) get a lodger (at least temporarily).
Let’s cut to the next scene:
My flat, a Sunday afternoon. A heated discussion…
Leo: It will only be for a very short time, no more than a month.
Me: Mate, really… I don’t think it will only be a month…
(what we’re are discussing here is Leo’s conviction in less than a month he will have won his wife back from those grasping hands, from that rascally manager, from that nemesis… his strategy for winning her back is twofold:
He is thinking really hard about going to the office and giving the fellow a thorough thrashing…
He’s going to be an example of the perfect husband – exactly the same guy he was a month ago before she left him…
Now I’m not sure, but I certainly hope, you can see the small flaws… - a thrashing, which is really unlikely in the first place for an evolved liberal, and I don’t care which country you are from, an evolved liberal is an evolved liberal, and thus far more likely to indulge in a little fantasy, reason his way to a few intimidating consequences, allow his unconscious to produce a few extremely understandable and most of all rational excuses, and quite maturely move on with his life, and in the second place the guy he’s going to exemplify is the guy she left… as plans go… thus, more than a month.
My girlfriend: Oh, you don’t have to worry… I’ve always wanted a dog. I’ll walk him, I’ll play with him, I’ll feed him… I PROMISE (some of my more astute readers might have paid heed to the notable lack of ‘I’ll train him’… it just didn’t even occur!)
Me: Sweetheart… Maybe for a couple of weeks, even a month or so, but in the end… I think you might find it just a little too heavy a burden…
(that’s diplomatic me for…
Are you off your rocker…! You’re the girl who can’t even cut up her watermelon to pull a few seeds out; rather than a pleasant eating experience you’d rather spit seeds than take a minute to scratch them out! In a day you’ll have forgotten, in a week you’ll hate it and in a month you’ll resent me for putting all this responsibility on your shoulders in the first place).
I looked at the two of them… the one so sure and confidant he could pull his life back together, he just needed the freedom to do it, and the other filled with all the joy of a wonderful loving new toy that would cherish her and obey her every comic whim. I already knew what I was going to do, I think I was just holding off in case a plane crashed into my flat terminating the question before any predicted consequences could be fulfilled… A few seconds later, there being no abrupt arrival of Flight 042 from Alberta, I agreed. The happiness in their eyes wasn’t even worth a dog biscuit!
Some time later…
My insanely active Dog looked at me, and as he was the only other person in the flat I looked right on back. We’d had a nice day yesterday… We’d been out to the lake, hired a speedboat and raced it across the waters in the bitter winter weather for an hour or two. It hadn’t been just the two of us, oh no… I’d had my new girlfriend for company, the last one had left ages ago. This one wasn’t terribly fond of dogs, but she managed to ignore him most of the time (time I could already see was quickly running to a conclusion). There’d been more company… Leo, his loving and devoted new wife, and his new dog, had all come with us. Yep, and all I could say about that – my Dog had showed the other who was alpha (by showing the other his romantic inclinations, yes, but that really wasn’t the point – don’t get me wrong, I don’t think my Dog is gay; well, it hasn’t really come up in conversation – I like to think of him as enlightened. I mean, come on, it is the 21st century)! Now, ‘I told you so’ doesn’t seem to do, eh?
Part 3 - The Teenage Years
If I were to tell you the first couple of years with my Dog were… contentious I would be using the same kind of unassuming language as suggesting a hurricane to be a little annoying for those just leaving the hairdresser.
When he arrived he was already just over six months old. He had never been given any limits to his behaviour, I don’t know how much you know about Cocker Spaniels, and to be honest my own experience comes from an intimate knowledge of one, a bit of reading, and a few chats with ‘dog lovers’ (‘dog lover’, what kind of a term is that… I have images of muscular fellows in nice suits approaching well-groomed dogs in bars wondering if they lived nearby, or elegant and sophisticated women in dresses hugging every curve and hinting at more, batting eyelids from the bar and making inviting body language – of course everyone who knows me says I’m quite mad, so…), but to me Cockers work under several very clear premises:
Everyone in the world is my friend just waiting to meet me
Everyone in the world loves me jumping on them
People love to hear me bark when they knock at the door
People only really want me to be obedient when they want to give me something
The world is my oyster and a snack all in one
Someone would knock, he would go insane, I would kick him, he would bite me – the whole thing would degenerate into snapping jaws from under the coffee table and a stick being randomly pocked at what couldn’t be seen without lowering myself to the freezing paved floor.
I would walk him, and he would try to walk me – the lead as a double-edged sword. He would choke his way from tree to tree, from individual to individual and I would get a thorough workout of thighs and shoulders as I tried to limit the number of possible law suits.
In those days I much preferred alcohol as a stable partner than any wretchedly disobedient, hopelessly selfish Dog, and thus our arguments, as I unintentionally continued his conditioning towards violence and aggression, would degenerate into the thing of legends. It did not however stay the thing of legends, or rather it slowly, over years of companionship, developed into a very different kind of legend – the legend of one man and his Dog, of a man who eventually found in that Dog a solid friend, and a Dog, appearances being what they were, who found a grumpy old bastard who would move continents for him…
I taught him, over the years, one way or another, to be semi-obedient, without ever managing to crack that freedom of spirit Nietzsche would have admired so deeply. He taught me, over the years, patience… but more of that to follow…
Part 4 - The Little Things
Before I launch into just a few of the longer tales I want to immortalise I shall write about some of the little things that used to make him who he was rather than someone else. A strange concept perhaps, but when I walk on the street I see other tall men, some of them are blond, one or two have a big nose, so I must wonder what makes them, them and me… well… me?
I had particular parents, and in a way I was father, mother and brother to my Dog. I grew up in a very particular environment, and I feel I can say without conceit my Dog also had a very specific and unique environment to grow and evolve. I had adventures, and together the two of us had more than our share of unusual encounters for one man and his Dog. I don’t want to go into the endless details of the environmental things making him, him, but I do want to talk a little about the things I found wonderfully peculiar about my special Dog…
My Dog was both spoilt and aggressively selfish – I would always buy him treats. I don’t mean those dreadful little tasteless biscuits many owners buy their beloved creatures, but real treats. I mean things like roasted pigs’ feet, T-bone steak bones I would snatch from business dinner tables before the waiting staff could whisk them away to be discarded, when they quite obviously had such better uses available, and his particular favourite… every now and then I would buy him a whole pork leg, and roast it for him myself. The thing, when it emerged far too hot for him to attempt, would be so heavy it would weigh his head almost to the floor as he dragged the thing into a dark secluded corner of the room to devour.
That quite clearly describes the spoilt side, but what about the selfish? If I would approach him, even to walk past for an unrelated reason, he would stop eating, hunch his shoulders, and utter a bone-chilling snarling growl to keep away. I wasn’t allowed even a drop of the molten grease dripping from the thing.
On the other hand, he would delight when I shared with him. In China you can buy, for a very reasonable price, a massive honeydew melon the shape, and perhaps magnified by a factor of three, the size, of a rugby ball. I would buy one of these and leave it a day or two in the fridge to chill. Then we would run together, more on a few of our runs later, but when we returned… sweaty, dirty, and wretchedly hot, there would be nothing better than chopping a huge wedge from a melon, further cutting it into nice sized chunks and then as I perched on the kitchen side, and he plopped himself at my feet, tongue lolling from the side of his rabid mouth (he really looked rabid during and after a run as all his saliva frothed around his mouth – an image bringing a spectacular reaction from the local people who suffer from a general kind of social hypochondria). I would take a chunk, bite off a little more than half, and then throw, in increasingly difficult arches, the remainder to him, which he would inevitably snatch from the air before it had a chance to even glimpse the floor. The subsequent crunching as he devoured the piece was a joy to my overly sensitive ears.
He didn’t like the cold, but couldn’t take the heat… fickle! In the winter, as I curled up on my leather sofa (yes, I have to say it has been many years since I slept in a bed, finding a comfy sofa, beside a good coffee table, to present a far more efficient way to exist), beneath a huge, soft, heavy blanket, and he would, giving me very little choice in the matter, proceed to wiggle his way under the blankets, rotate until he’s curled frame fit my chest, stick his nose out from under the covers and remain motionless, intentionally making his body deadweight lead so as not to be ousted from his situation. He would remain like that for about twenty minutes to half an hour, just until I was about to fall asleep, and then realising he was overheating toddle off taking half the blanket with him. I would discover in the morning he’d found a comfortable compromise in curling up above the blankets between me and the back of the sofa, creating a comfortable looking nest of sorts. On those especially bitter nights he would, much to my dismay, take to digging the blanket into something a little more… snug, often leaving my poor feet at quite a loss as to what to do…
Oh, he would love to introduce himself… I remember one delightful day. We were wandering post-rain streets and a couple of very attractive girls were approaching from the other direction. One of these girls didn’t seem to suffer from the usual phobia so many in Asia do with regard to dogs and so started making what I presume were Chinese attract a dog noises (although the state of my Chinese at the time she could have been listing the ingredients for a tasty Hungarian goulash). Dog, obedient in ways he never was to me, immediately rushed up to her, but rather than wagging around her feet waiting for a pet, which I’m pretty sure she was expecting, he leapt up onto her wonderfully tight, sparkling white jeans, leaving his autograph all over the once-immaculate fashion statement…
I did of course offer to wash them, but was politely refused…
He used to love the snow. It was, for whatever doggy reasons, fascinating, especially if it was falling. We don’t get very much snow in England anymore, and that’s the clearest sign of global warming I can imagine as just a few decades ago when I was a little boy, I would wade for weeks through thick snow drifts on the way to and from school, and once actually managed, along with several friends, come LAST in a yearly charity twenty mile walk because we’d been larking so much in the snow and semi-frozen ditches. There’s still quite a lot of snow in some of the more northern parts of China and when it snowed, he’d be out and darting around, kicking the stuff up, and even snapping or jumping at the falling flakes.
I remember one time he was having so much fun we’d wandered far from home; I was loathe to end his delight. I noticed he was beginning to limp, and eventually realised it was because his feet were freezing cold…
My Dog didn’t like being picked up… he’d wiggle and writhe until you just had to drop him or suffer a hernia, but on this occasion the poor bugger allowed me to hoist him into my arms and stagger home with a twenty or thirty kilo dog clutched in my frozen arms…
I started to learn the Guzheng… This is a traditional Chinese musical instrument. It’s about two metres long, lies on its back, has strings and you tape your fingers and strum the thing to make, hopefully, pretty noises.
I had been tutoring a young boy over the summer for GCSE prep. He was trying to win a scholarship to an English boarding school in Suzhou, where students could then go on to study their A-levels in England. His parents were not very wealthy, and me being the numpty I am had refused any payment (I’d known the little fellow since he was nine, coaching him to win a school competition even then – he’s recently finished studying at Trinity, Cambridge, and we still stay in touch). His parents knew I’d been taking Guzheng lessons and so as a thank you bought me a beautiful one hand-crafted by a local carpenter.
Preparations were quite long to practicing this instrument. It was so big I couldn’t really leave it in the living room so I would have to set up a couple of chairs, bring the thing out and balance it upon them, then wrap my fingers in white sticky tape… After a very short time Dog learnt what these preparations meant, and as a testament to my skill and proficiency would promptly hide beneath the coffee table, covering his ears with his paws as best he could, and refuse to emerge until the wretched thing had gone back into the spare bedroom – everyone’s a critic!
Part 5 - Tennis Balls
These next few chapters are in no particular chronological order… my poor old brain doesn’t have it in it… but they were powerful enough to stick, where most everything else these days just seems to slide away (although, it is interesting, with the right impetus, recollection can be excellent – nothing is lost, altered a bit, but still clinging tenaciously).
Like any good Dog owner walks should include the park and some throwing of… something. In our time we tried the traditional stick, the Frisbee, and eventually settled on the tennis ball.
The stick was handy, but getting him to bring it back was a fruitless exercise… there would always just be something else to capture his attention (usually the aroma of something you and I should be eternally thankful is beyond the reach of our olfactory capacities). I have to wonder if he was concerned for my health, intentionally necessitating I jog off and retrieve the thing, or perhaps he just had me in training to be an obedient human.
The Frisbee was a different story all together… he loved that Frisbee… he would gnaw on it, dig his teeth into it piecing it with marks akin to some vampiric creature of the night, he would fold it up in his front paws and just hangout staring at people… and he would carry it around with him everywhere, wary of his most prized possession (as long as no bone was present to squeeze into the cracks of loyalty), so I never need to don my jogging shoes… He just couldn’t catch it! Oh, he’d try – leaping into the air to watch it sail by, snatching at the perfect throws directly at his mouth only to do a pretty good imitation of a bumper car at the hands of an inebriated toddler. He didn’t seem to mind, he’d just scamper after the thing and clumsily gobble the thing back up, and go straight back to gnawing. To be honest I don’t really think he wanted to chase or catch the wretched, slobbery thing, he just wanted to chew, like comfort gum…
The tennis ball though… ah, that’s where we really found our niche! I used to live pretty close to some tennis courts. There was a local neighbourhood centre where old folks would hang out drinking tea and gossiping, playing a little cards, chess or mazhong on a well-sized bit of concrete in front of the building. There were some outdoor exercise machines for pull ups, waist twists, leg raises, etc… and there were two tennis courts.
If I didn’t have time to take him for a decent walk or better a long run, we would wander into this complex as all around the sides and the back was rough undergrowth running along the canal, laced with a few hard-packed old tracks. One of these led directly behind the tennis courts and so those players not entirely confident in the mastery of their art (so, all of them) might, more than occasionally, belt a ball over the fence to become lost in the bush.
Dog found his very first ball, and that was the end of that. He clutched his prize tightly in his mouth and wouldn’t let me go near it until we returned home. He immediately realised he could, with at least equal satisfaction, gnaw on the ball and hardly destroy it at all (or rather the inevitable destruction of the ball was a far slower process than any flimsy old Frisbee, which, with the speed of a teenage love, was promptly forgot as soon as a replacement arrived).
Eventually, after some protracted contention and arguments, he discovered allowing me the occasional possession of the ball could lead to him having to chase it into various places. The same magic captivating sticks exerted still held sway – I’d say I still had to fetch the damn things myself at least half of the time, especially, so it seemed to my observant/paranoid mind, when it landed in a particularly hard to reach spot, or even worse near something quite revolting, but on the whole, over the years, he pretty much became an expert in the dummy, the sprint, the sit and catch, the hide and seek, etc…
A quick aside – Cocker Spaniels… designed and bred hunting dogs. I would take his ball, shut him in another room for a few seconds and stash the thing in a different place every time. He would come out, nose vibrating as if it were suffering from epilepsy, and snuffle… less than a minute, didn’t matter where, and trust me, I became pretty inventive, he’d have it back in slobbery jaws, basking in his own glory, happy to be reunited with his love.
I’ve three or four tennis ball tales to tell:
1. He just didn’t need one…
We would walk three times a day, and each and every time we walked, he would find at least one ball (I’m telling you, if I lost that many balls at tennis I would have given up and taken up archaeology or some such…), sometimes two, and one very rare occasion even three… Have you ever seen a dog try to get three tennis balls in his mouth at once and then bring them all the way home, all the while being distracted by smells, sights, and the call of an apparently bottomless bladder?
2. He dropped one in the canal once…
It’s not like we didn’t have more at home (but more of that later…). However, he just sat there, forlorn and despairing as his ball bobbed slowly away just out of reach. I couldn’t take it! After a manful wrestling match with a tree (although I escaped with a dismembered limb, my scrapes and contusions suggest the tree won), more than a little panicked balancing and a totally soaking wet shoe and foot, I rescued his bloody ball (or prevented its escape as it tried to prevent being devoured at the teeth of a hell beast). Did I even get a thank you…?
3. We had a lot of tennis balls…
At first I used to let him keep all his ill-gotten gains lying around the living room, but after a very short interim there were just too many (the place had become something of a death-trap, requiring balance, flexibility, grace and spatial awareness more accurately attributed to some ninja, yoga instructor, ballerina, assassin hybrid, than some relatively normal fellow like myself). So, I began to stash them in the spare room, leaving two or three in the living room – still dangerous as they seemed imbued with a malicious life of their own at times, but a significant move towards safety compared to before. He knew they were there… if the door was opened for any reason he’d be straight into the cardboard box they were kept in, and on the occasion I had things to do back and forth from the room he would patiently repeat journeys and slowly retrieve as many as he could before I finally put a stop to the ingenious and inventive enterprise. In the end, when we finally moved a few years later to a new home, I had more than the largest size of industrial bin bag full. He never knew for sure, but I’m pretty confident, from his occasional sullen attitude, he suspected I gave the lot of them away to some kids…
4. Last one, and my favourite…
Fairly obviously he came to be convinced all tennis balls in the universe were actually his, and any not directly in his possession were simply being held for him by one of his ‘not-yet-met’ friends (everyone he hadn’t encountered yet). If the gates were open, he’d interrupt tennis matches (probably for the best really, as they must have spent an absolute fortune on balls), and have away with as many as he could muster (if the gates were shut, he’d just sit and stare with Narcissus longing). If another dog had one in his possession it wouldn’t remain so for long, often inciting the two creatures to take part in a rather heated debate on the nature of possession. Once, a very small boy, perhaps two years old, was playing with his grandmother in the public area I mentioned before (plenty of grandparents would take the little ones there in the day to take a little pressure of parents who by necessity both had to work), and he had, gripped tightly in his miniscule hand, a brand-new shiny green tennis ball. Dog, fortunately, never paid much attention to children… perhaps they didn’t seem as likely to pay him attention… he would usually treat them much like a small herbivore while he concentrated on more formidable prey (people who would actually pet him), but this day the small child had clearly pilfered his property, and he just wasn’t going to stand for that! He, and for some reason he was, when he paid them any attention, extremely gentle with children (adults, he try to bowl over like it was league night at the alley), slunk his way into the little boy’s vicinity, as innocent as a paparazzi moving in for the frontpage shot, and with incremental movements, and infinite gentleness, removed the ball from the little boy’s hands, while the little fellow just watched him with shocked curiosity. Hiding my pride at his bold thievery I apologised profusely to the grandmother as she eyed him a little like dinner, offered to return the ball (yea, you guessed it – she didn’t require us to return the foamy slobber and drool covered ball to the innocent and more importantly – clean – hands of the toddler, but I knew she wouldn’t…). As innocent as a sociopath he trotted home oblivious to my half-hearted chastisements.
He had balls, my Dog…
Part 6 - The Water Boy
One personality quirk my Dog used to exhibit, however much I tried to dissuade him, was a fondness for announcing the arrival of quests. It’s not that I didn’t know they had arrived; the doorbell was this terrifying rattling, ringing thing reverberating throughout the flat, but he was completely convinced I couldn’t quite make it out… Whenever the bell rang, he would launch into an accompanying melody of excited barks. He would also celebrate the arrival of our guest with a leaping, spinning, twisting dance more closely resembling an attempt to have the gods bring rain than the proper decorum greeting a visitor should require.
Over the many years I lived in that flat I made some good relationships with my neighbours. At first, back near the turn of the millennium, people in China were very guarded to the arrival of a Westerner within their midst. They were very slow to even acknowledge a foreign presence (one of the things I do adore about England is our reserved friendliness: A nod and a smile, a brief good morning, a wave of gratitude when a car lets you cross the road or move through a gap first, these are oddities throughout most of the rest of the world, something the English probably don’t truly appreciate as they very rarely have the chance to encounter others in their own countries – aside from tourist attractions where the locals rely on the goodwill of visitors to sustain their way of life). However, after I had lived there for some time I became, if not one of them, then at least their Westerner, and my unusual ways were tolerated with the kind of good humour one applies to a child making mistakes and being silly simply because they didn’t know any better. I mean, who would go running in the summer heat… who would exercise in their backyard without their shirt on… who would buy only one or two of each vegetable from the market stalls… etc…?
One fellow, who supplied not only my water but my wines and spirits, was a big fellow I only ever knew as ‘The Water Man’, who actually saved Dog from being sold once:
Aside: I had been walking him around the tennis courts one day and after turning around for a moment he just disappeared. I never really knew how he vanished. At first, I wasn’t worried as he’d usually turn up snuffling his way out of some particularly dense foliage, but after I had spent about ten minutes scouring the area and didn’t find him, I decided to try home, as sometimes he’d just decide to go home as he was tired or a bit hot… He wasn’t waiting at the doorstep so I returned to the social centre thinking I must have simply missed him.
This went on for an hour or so until I finally, full to the brim with worry and frustration, gave up. For the rest of the day and through the night I would go out onto the street and search for him. Each time I increased the area of my search pattern, constantly worrying whilst I was searching ‘a’ he would be looking for me at ‘b’, but all my efforts were for naught.
The next day, setting out again in what I now thought to be a fruitless effort, the water man asked if I’d found my Dog. As I hadn’t told him he was missing I asked if he’d seen him and I discovered he’d seen the man from the pet shop just around the corner taking him into his shop. I was delighted, thanked him profusely and ran to the shop. Upon entering I looked around at the dogs, almost all puppies, barking excitedly at my arrival but there was no sign of Dog.
I asked the fellow where he was, and thankfully I used a tone indicating I knew he was here (for I think anything else would have received nothing but a denial). He told me he’d found him yesterday and had given him to a friend to look after for the night. I still had no idea he was anything but helpful and innocent and asking when he might be returned was told to come back at about five thirty that evening.
A little early due to my eager desire to be reunited with my companion, I was there when two young girls, early twenties I should think, turned up in a car. They were crying… Dog jumped out of the car, ignoring their pathetic clutching hands and satisfyingly darted to my feet.
It was then I noticed he’d had a very expensive looking hair trim, he’s been washed and combed, and later I even discovered his nails had been trimmed (I must admit it was pretty weird seeing him without remnants of lunch in his ears). Well, the bugger had stolen him and sold him on – Cocker Spaniels, especially that beautiful red/gold traditional breed, are a very expensive rarity in China.
I didn’t break the man, though I was tempted, and to be honest felt a little sorry for the girls, but none of it mattered very much. I did, on parting, allow the owner of the pet shop a glance affording him no misconceptions as to my understanding of events…
I would never forget the water man for that favour, and told him all about it (he was one of the people I felt, even with my limited Chinese, I could just hang out with).
As his son, a small little lad when I first moved in, grew into a hulking giant of a teenager, his father began to delegate work. Unless he fancied a gossip, or was coming round for his once monthly cash, his son began to turn up lugging the huge bottles of water for the required dispenser. The mischievous fellow quickly discovered Dog’s explosive reaction to people ringing the bell, and I’m sure, due to the volume of my complaints, how much I disliked it when Dog leapt into action. The lad would press that bell to his heart’s content, and then a few more times for luck.
Now, you might recall above I mentioned upon occasion I would buy a huge pig’s leg for my Dog, roast the thing and allow him free-reign to devour the thing at his leisure…
One day we’d been out for a long run in the heat and Dog was exhausted. I put on the air-conditioner in one of the spare rooms and let him spread out across the bed for a nice cool-down and a nap. Perhaps it was exhaustion, perhaps old age was just beginning to tap at the door, perhaps the planets had all lined up and were beaming fate rays down upon our humble abode, but for whatever reason when the boy rang the doorbell, with all his usual prankish enthusiasm, Dog remained oblivious and asleep.
I opened the door and watched as he eagerly glanced around, fully expecting Dog to be leaping about or straining against some sort of restraint, but was disappointed to find nothing but a rather pink-faced me…
He asked me where Dog was? I have no idea where the thought came from, but as soon as it did, I simply couldn’t resist. I told him I’d eaten him (now, while this is China, and people do eat dog, it isn’t much like most people I encounter seem to think – people wander the streets filching pets and consuming them over some home fire. Rather, dogs are bred for consumption and offered on the menu; the usual Chinese person, especially living in the cities, would never think of a pet as edible…).
He stared at me for a moment, huge jug of water balanced effortlessly on his broad shoulders, and a little nervous smile crept onto his lips. He glanced around again for a moment, doubtless trying to catch me in the lark, but there was no sign of Dog. I thought perhaps he suspected my Chinese was letting me down so I leapt into more detail…
“Oh, you didn’t know… In England we buy a nice-looking Dog when he or she is a puppy and then we spend a year or so feeding it up… We like to feed them lots of milk and fatty foods, and when they are ripe and plump, we invite our very best friends around for dinner, slaughter and cook the animal and enjoy the meat with a decent wine.” With each straight-faced word he inched back just a little, colour draining from his face, eyes turning from oval curiosity to circular horror. Unable to resist I took good advantage of my environment; I turned and pointed to the thick remains of bone lying on the rug and said “There’s his leg!”
He dropped the bottle and fled!
The next day as I walked a happily unconsumed Dog past the shop his dad just looked at me and burst out laughing (I can only imagine the conversation when the boy had run home:
Boy: Dad, dad, the foreigner has eaten his dog!
Boy: He told me, they all eat their dogs in England, he showed me the bone!
Dad: Don’t be an idiot!
A following cuff to the ear… end of conversation
Part 7 - Violence
We both have a temper… or perhaps he had a temper because I have a temper…? It’s difficult to say… On the whole though we’re both pretty easy-going souls, but when push comes to shove…
The first of three tails…
Dog and I used to go running together… I loved these runs, and from the delight he exhibited when I took him out without putting the lead on, I’d say he enjoyed them even more than me. We obviously had different reasons for enjoying the experience. For me, I think I liked the image, not to others, although I didn’t mind, but to myself: jogging along with a beautiful, obedient (yea, the ideal, not the reality) Dog at my side… one man, and his stalwart, faithful companion. For Dog, I think he enjoyed the exercise, as he loved to run, he enjoyed the freedom of being able to roam here and there as he so desired, for even into old age the lead was nothing but a device to choke him as he strained after this smell or that smiling soul, and he just loved laying claim to as much of the planet as his bladder allowed (even when the fountain had dried he’d just keep on going through the process in a blissful haze of optimism), and finally, I think he also relished the opportunity to meet new people without any resistance but a bark from me, which could be selectively heard or not depending usually on his reception (of course his roaming here and there, stopping for a five minute sniff, lingering over some girl delighted at his conscientious ministrations, deciding whether he wanted to befriend some other poor canine out for a walk, one in chains as opposed to his freedom, etc… did take something away from that loyal Dog, padding away at my side, much to my consternation!). I shan’t add more to the running as I would like to describe some of the great runs we had in another chapter…
One day we were out for a run. We’d decided (yes, allow me my little fantasy of discussion and unanimity), to take the route that led down along the canal, and around behind the university. We didn’t go that way very often as all the little food stalls and hundreds of hungry students were the epitome of distraction.
We’d reached the canal and started south along the bank. The day was grey and a little cold, somewhere in early November, I believe. Lo and behold, what should we see before us, heading in our direction… but another jogging man and dog!
I remember when I first arrived in China, I asked a friend in the office where a nice route to run was? He replied I shouldn’t run; people will just think I’d stolen something (there’re two things to think about there: 1. The vast majority of Chinese do not exercise, which is interesting because as a whole the culture is generally hypochondrial, terrified of germs and illness, but they eat vast quantities of fried food and you’re unlikely to find a salad without looking very hard – and if you do, you’ll have to actively prevent them from automatically smothering what essentially consists of a couple of vegetables and some fruit in some sort of dressing. Exercise, if done at all, is participated in at the gym, or the tennis court, or if you are a male student, probably the basketball court, or for a small minority the football pitch – for older women there is some group dancing in the communities in the evening, and for a few there’s a little Taichi and Kungfu in the parks in the morning. 2. People expect to encounter thieves… and propaganda dictates they will come from Xinjiang (with all the recent events you wonder about that propaganda – I had plenty of things stolen and not once did I feel it was by some beggar migrating from the distant province) – the number of times people warned me to beware of my wallet or phone, and usually adding the thieves are all from that North-western province most of the rest of the world realises is not a happy place…
So, to see not just another jogger was rare enough, almost unheard of, but to see another relatively young fellow running with his dog… well, I was quite honestly flabbergasted!
As we approached, I prepared a smile, and a manly nod of comradery, only to be shocked when his Labrador just went for Dog. Dog seemed to have sensed something in advance, because he was ready to respond (Dog was usually the most amiable of creature, always trying to meet other four-legged fellows, but now and then something would set his teeth to a snarl, surge a bark to his lips, and have him straining for a tussle – none of which were ever much more than a romp, but the aggression seemed real enough).
The two of them went at it for a moment. I ran past and called him sharply, he left off the fight and returned to my side, but the other dog followed him and kept attacking him – the man did nothing to stop the proceedings, so I kicked his dog in the face…!
Enraged, the man came at me and made a clumsy swing, missing by a mile. Dog wasn’t going to let that go and went straight for his ankle. The fellow responded with a yelp of surprise and pain and tried to kick Dog! Well, I couldn’t stand for that so laid the fellow out by the canal. His dog was a little scared of me now, so refused to return to the fray, and the fellow didn’t seem terrible anxious to face us alone, or perhaps he found that particular spot exceptionally comfortable, because he didn’t get back up again.
Dog and I exchanged a glance… it was a moment I shall never forget… perhaps words can’t be used to describe the content, because it was generated and shared in that moment of consciousness before language destroyed so much content, but it rang triumphant of victory, and partnership.
Without another glance at the losers, we turned and continued on our way, feeling like the battle-hardened victors we were…
Have you ever seen a Cocker run? I don’t mean chase after a stick or ball in his own gambling pace, intent on the fun of the activity rather than the running itself, I mean when one really has to run?
Very occasionally, due to living in a city and the trouble of finding somewhere long, straight and safe enough, I wouldn’t take Dog out for a walk or a jog, but I would take my bicycle… We would head off into the industrial park where the roads were long and straight and on some of them there was very little traffic and I would ride fast… I can ride very fast – the bike is my preferred mode of transport and when you’re confined to a single city or town then I believe it far surpasses the car (especially if you have to drive – really, who would want to sit in traffic listening to the same nonsense on the radio, intermixed with daft adverts trying to sell you something you’re by the very nature of your activity only able to pay half a mind to – at least a passenger can read or entertain themselves with some subtle activity, so long as the driver doesn’t feel the need to alleviate their boredom with meaningless conversation).
So, I can ride really fast… when Dog ran at full speed something would happen to his body… his head would lower, his body would stretch into a shape far elongated compared to his normal length, the muscles throughout his entire body would all come to work at the same time; you could see each and every one bunching and stretching with each light, pounding surge from the pavement. He couldn’t keep it up for long, a couple of hundred metres at best, but he could keep up with me at my very fastest… and he loved it!
Upon one such occasion we were just returning home. He was pretty worn out so I was just gently biking in front of him when in front of us I spotted perhaps the biggest Goldy I’ve ever seen. More like a white-gold haired mammoth than a normal creature; genetically mutated into something from prehistoric nightmares. He was tugging along some diminutive middle-aged woman as they headed towards us, no doubt taking her out for her morning walk.
I’m unsure why, but I had a premonition of trouble. As I think I’ve mentioned Dog would usually make friends with any cousin he came across, but now and then there could be friction. Just as I passed the woman and her mutant I slowed to a crawl, and once more prediction turned to fact…
Dog bounded up with his usual ‘be my friend’ attitude, and the monster, without any provocation my human senses could perceive, just went for him. It was no playful romp, or attitude of dominance, but a savage attack. In moments he had my Dog pinned beneath his massive paws and was snapping powerful jaws deep into the flesh around the shoulder of Dog’s right foreleg.
The woman started shouting for her dog to desist, but made no effort whatsoever to pull him off. I was off my bike in an instant. The titanic thing was side on to me with a metal fence beyond so I just kicked him with the power of a steaming locomotive in his ribs. I heard a few of them crack and the wretched thing flew off to smash into the fence. I was on it in a second stamping on its head and damaged ribs until I managed to control myself.
The woman was now screaming at me! Dog struggled to his feet, blood gushing from his shoulder wound, and she was screaming at me – I confess my rage could as yet not be contained and I told her if I ever saw her dog again, I would kill the evil thing (although, to this day I’m not convinced I hadn’t already accomplished that threat).
We limped home together and I washed out his shoulder – a bit hairy for a band-aid… and we settled down to some melon. Another day in the trenches…
David and Goliath
My last tail isn’t one of great violence, but a little amusement… We were shopping at the local vegetable market and on the way home, Dog not leashed as usual, a tiny dog… one of those little things difficult to distinguish from a rat, belonging to one of two ancient old women, decided to be a bother…
He came straight up and started to attack my Dog’s testicles! I mean it was very specific! Perhaps he thought he was trying to suckle, perhaps he had some kind of unusual dog fetish and was simply satisfying a pleasure drive, perhaps they were particularly aromatic that day (no, I didn’t check), but the horrid little thing just kept at it.
To be honest Dog was dreadfully tolerant; just trying to move away from what he likely considered a specimen too diminutive to be worth even his disdain, but it just ‘doggedly’ (sorry, couldn’t help myself), followed wherever Dog retreated and kept at his worrisome (did it again…), action.
I was carrying two heavy bags of fresh fruit and veg so looked at the women in the hopes they would try to restrain the rascal, but they were deep in conversation and unconcerned with the antics.
Once again, the dog was side on, but this time with more of a lift than a kick I returned the dog to his mistress with my foot. The dog made the most delightful arc through the air, both graceful and artistic in style, and landed in an offended heap at his mistress’ feet!
Oh, then she paid attention! I tried to explain, in my childlike Chinese, her mongrel wouldn’t stop his attack on my Dog’s testicles (and I tell you, that’s not an easy speech intention to come up with when suffering from limited language skills), but she wouldn’t hear a word I said.
The two of us simply retreated with as much dignity as the situation allowed and sped away as fast as a heavily laden fellow and his abused friend could manage – still it was a beautiful sight of physics in motion…
Part 8 - One Man And His Dog
One day we were off for a walk. It was mid-summer, which means about forty degrees with insanely high humidity; the kind of humidity that follows you into the shade, that clings to you, absorbed into clothes reluctant to ever surrender the heat. Sweat dripped… especially from my rather long and pointed nose, and even Dog lost his energy, if not his passion, on our walks before too long during those long months.
We were off for a longer walk, he’d not had much more than a walk around the block a few times a day for a while as I’d been busy with work, but today I had the day off, I had a tennis ball in my pocket, and the park beckoned.
To get to the nearest decently sized park we had to walk along a long straight road running next to a canal, cross a main road, and then make a few turns behind a huge shopping centre ridiculously named In City (I might attach an article I wrote on the name, or include it on the same webpage on my site if anyone reading this decides they would like an adventure in advertising).
In China you can find guys to take you places, or move your stuff, pretty easily. Not so much in the ghastly ‘neighbourhoods’ they devise now (ugly high-rises surrounded by sculptured gardens, a few shops, hairdresser or two, maybe a kindergarten, all secured by guards who couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag), but in the main cities, the older parts where people still live on the ground, feel the pulse of humanity, know their neighbour, have their silver burglarised… on a corner somewhere in each area you’ll find some guys hanging out with motorbikes, cars and a minivan or two. These you can bargain with in a way taxis won’t allow, at least in the more internationally known areas where appearances must be kept – I myself used to have a motorbike pick me up from the north of the city to rush me to a Korean kindergarten for some lunchtime classes (oh my poor ears and nose in the bitter winter winds…).
At the end of this long, straight, canal road, just before the crossing, was one such location. Today, there weren’t so very many guys there; perhaps ten or twelve, as the midday heat sent most sensible people scurrying for their beds to nap through the hottest few hours (unlike money-lazy UK citizens the Chinese work, so while they might, quite sensibly, hide from the sun for a few hours they will be opening their shops before seven and not closing them until eleven at night – although, to be honest, most of those people live in or above their shops so keeping them open is pretty much equivalent to hanging out with your neighbours).
These die-hards were all squatting, a position many Chinese guys sit in when loathe to sully their clothes with dust. It’s a cultural phenomenon – an entire nation of hypochondriacs, who keep their clothes and body as clean as possible even while surrounded by the refuse and dust of a developing, often still third-world, country… So, where I would have simply plopped my bum down on the wall running along waist height to the canal, they were all squatting upon it in a position only knees practiced from childhood could have maintained (it always reminded me of the three monkeys – see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil…).
Being near white blond in the summer, being the only foreigner in the area, back in those days you’d see a few more than when I arrived, but they would live in those locked neighbourhoods I mentioned; only a few who, for various reasons, liked being among the mix, lived within real communities and all the gossip, theft, friendship and dislike that went along with them, and having a Dog extremely rare in China – I think in fifteen years I saw less than and handful of Cockers, we attracted a lot of attention.
Aside: This attention caused me a lot of trouble over the years… Culturally, in England, if another man, within the twenty to forty age range, stares at you without looking away, it shouts out a certain aggressive message. In China, these rules don’t apply – if you are curious about something you look. Oh, don’t get me wrong, people with any kind of education will understand it’s a little rude, but they’ll mostly do it anyway – especially with a Laowai (foreigner), who is obviously too ignorant to understand they are being examined. I often felt like a television, just being watched as if I were a device for entertainment without any personality of my own. Over the years I adjusted a little, but even after a long time had passed, were I short-fused, bad tempered, or simply really tired, I would still react… but this isn’t so much my story, but the journey I travelled for a while with my one of my best friends (you’ll find plenty of examples of trouble brought about by this cultural misunderstanding in my journals).
This day, as we tramped along that long road in the dripping heat, these guys, with nothing much else to do, stared at us the whole way up the road! I was pretty tired from days of long hours and felt the familiar knot growing between my shoulder blades, but I kept my cool – tried to stare back, even though I’d rather have thought of something else, just to maintain my ‘face’, until we were passed and the gauntlet had been run.
We had some fun in the park… some ball chasing, some snuffling muck, scared a few girls, terrified parents with small children, and generally wore ourselves out with larks.
On the return journey, perhaps filled with a little too much adrenalin, these fellows, still without a word or flicker of emotion, just returned to their staring… I felt the heat rising… One after another, as we passed, I stared them into submission… as close to them as I could get without proposing marriage, flexing lean muscle under a sweaty jogging vest, until the very last fellow.
The alpha… what I mean by alpha here is the old picture of a traditional school bully alpha, at least from my perspective – that huge fat, fairly tall fellow, whose weight and attitude more than any ‘alpha’ abilities get him along in first place (one could examine alphas from different perspectives all day long… that Freudian idea of the superman taking what he wants before social regulation and the rule of the sheep, the businessman assessing markets and betraying allegiances at the drop of a hat, the bumbling professor making breakthroughs on his toilet others would never have imagined in a million years… the alphas are as numerous as social situations, but put one in the wrong room…), refused to back down. He just continued to stare without breaking eye contact until I was forced to stop in front of him or pass him by and no longer be able to maintain eye contact, and therefore lose the rather infantile, but quite fun, competition.
I knew I was causing trouble… I looked down at Dog and the knackered old fellow looked back… I could have just walked on… Returning by gaze to fatty I asked him in Chinese what he was looking at? He ignored me and said something in the local dialect to his buddies… they all laughed at whatever the excellent joke had been. I looked at Dog once more… I asked the fellow if he could swim? He stared at me, not really comprehending the depth of the question… I pushed him in the canal – well, you shouldn’t sit in that precariously balanced position on a wall overlooking a deep stretch of water and start trouble…
There was a wail, an enormous splash and a surge of water as his gigantic mass displaced an ocean or two. His buddies all jumped up from their perches, I turned to face the belligerent gang… from down at my side a snarling growl foamed from Dog. I had never heard the sound from him, and never would again… It was something pure in its aggression, fearless and prepared… a warning. I was ready for a fight, but each and every one of these fellows took one look at the glittering white fangs shinning from the snarled lips of my mate and decided against any punitive action. Muttering to themselves they headed back across the road to their vehicles, apparently leaving their poor drowning mate to his fate, and that was the end of it.
We exchanged a glance, his mood vanished in an instant, and we wandered off for home – oh yea, you know he received some fairly substantial treats that night!
One more short tail… I used to teach a couple of young Korean kids in their home. Their mum, a delightful woman who used to drown me in real coffee and always had plates of tasty chocolate snacks, seemed to enjoy my visits almost as much as the kids (this was a refreshing change as when I went to most houses to teach I was pretty lucky to get a glass of water without asking, and coffee and chocolate aren’t usually on the Chinese menu). One thing they have in common, the kids very rarely had any pets. There’s a great deal of fear of dogs, and due to the frequently mentioned hypochondria, they’re not welcomed as perceived as dirty and carrying sicknesses.
For some reason I found myself showing the kids some pictures of Dog and they both (a boy and girl), begged to meet him as they’d apparently never even encountered a dog in real life (there are a lot of dogs in China, but truly, when I lived in South Korea, in a major city, I don’t think I saw more than two or three dogs in more than six months). I asked the mum for permission to meet in the park and, although quite obviously with some reluctance, she agreed to their pleading eyes.
A day or two later we met up at a big park and oh did they have fun… Dog, usually not particularly interested in children took a delighted interest in them (sitting delightfully still for their first tentative strokes and not at all fazed by their initial half-fun screams), completely disregarding our no face licking rule (the mum had left the kids in my care so I didn’t have to face the repercussions of those particular baths), and chasing them about in screaming circles of giggling fun (he didn’t even bother to inform them of their misunderstanding when they chased after the tennis ball with him after they threw the mangled old thing).
I snapped more than a few pictures that day – I must admit the adage of a camera to a phone has elicited a little more photography than my usual reticence when disturbing the mood of any moment photo worthy. The very best of which, which I shall include somewhere on the page was Dog gnawing at his own huge ice cream, the stick protruding from his mouth as if he’s smoking a cigarette…
The kids were well-worn and happy when the mother returned and their apparent lack of savage wounds or infection seemed to reassure her they had been in safe paws…
Part 9 - Running
Today, in our more civilised countries, we are legally obligated to keep dogs on the lead in most places. I’m not here to argue the pros and cons of such legislation, but I am here to say it’s very sad. We live in an age and society where we are perhaps a little over-precautious, and our multitudinous fears may very well be our own undoing… However, where Dog and I lived there were no such regulations, or if there were no one ever seemed particularly inclined in approaching a six-foot-two, pink faced boxer and his slightly insane companion as they pounded along pavements sweating enough buckets to liberally water a lawn or two.
One of the greatest joys I ever experienced with Dog was to run together. Here was a fellow who was always prepared for a walk. Here was a fellow who was treated to at least three walks a day (admittedly just a turn around the block at lunchtime), at relatively irregular intervals, and thus… always, however apparently deep in sleep, prepared with half an ear to listen out for tempting movements throughout the flat.
I’m not sure where the desire or the satisfaction came from – perhaps I watched movies where a fellow and his dog jogged through forest trails, perhaps I saw people running with their dogs when I was a young lad, or perhaps there’s something instinctual to it, something intrinsic stretching back primordially to man and dog running across the plains on some dangerous hunt – symbiotic relationship at its fundamental core (excuse the little daydream, but then… anthropology is all about speculating theories…).
I think I mentioned Dog was pretty uncontrollable when I first received the reluctant responsibility, and only through a battle of wills, and general exhaustion, did we come to some kind of understanding. When we ran, this interesting, loving but never slavish, relationship truly came into its own…
The start of any run would be a mad dash hither and thither… oh, the wild freedom of being off the leash and not restricted to some tepid human somnambulation – for once we were moving as a dog is supposed to move… Imagine for a moment you are a creature built to run, a creature designed to dash here and there exploring smells, noises and interesting movements, and suddenly you are leashed. Forced to tug along this way and that at this awfully restricted speed, unable to reach that tantalising aroma, that cat flickering into the shrubs, that girl screaming in fear of an unknown and particularly frisky canine… That’s what we do to our dogs when we restrict them to the lead, and they still lovingly forgive our transgression.
Full to the brim with unbounded energy he would flicker from here to there, snuffling at the light fragrances, sniffing more thoroughly at the more interesting, and therefore by our standards, disgusting, and really snicking his nose into what should never be written about in great depth.
After perhaps five minutes of this he would tire a little, and this would be my favourite part of the run. For the next ten or fifteen minutes he would, and this is the word I always relished when I watched the phase… range to the left and right, far in front or dropping back due to something particularly seductive to his attention. This is what I imagined a hunting dog to be… Not a hunting dog in the more traditional sense of the word: either scaring animals from the undergrowth, or waiting patiently to fetch the lead filled duck, but off following his own trails, roaming his own way, but returning to me after a few seconds or even a minute or two.
It took a few years to fully trust this… I would worry he would get lost, or worse – stolen, but after a while I became comfortable enough to rarely even spare him a glance as I concentrated on my own thoughts, my own flagging steps, or simply just the interesting things to gaze at on a decent long run (if you have an interesting enough course – you have to feel sorry for people locked into running the suburban streets of a town, or worse some mobbed city centre – as I am at the moment).
The last ten to twenty minutes of the run would be a very different story… Unlike his wiser, or at least his less enthusiastic friend, he wouldn’t pace himself, but expend his energy in a magnificent conflagration of delight, so by twenty minutes or so into the run the ranging would be done and he’d just settle into a knacked trot at my heels, conveniently distracted by every smell he could encounter – I knew it an excuse for a little breather! So, by the time we were returning home I’d often be behind him encouraging his pace with paise and encouragement (quite interesting an encouraging tone of voice would have him accelerating for just a little while, huge lolling tongue hanging from the corner of his mouth as he glanced back at me).
We ran often, and utilised as many different routes as our current location allowed (we moved fairly often), but a couple of runs bear remembering…
Near where I lived is a manmade lake called Jinji Lake. You cross the lake over a huge bridge to the north sporting several lanes of traffic and then cut right, to the east of the lake, into a few miles of sculptured gardens running along the lake (this side of the lake is for the rich with their huge luxury flats, their expensive cars, and heaving waistbands – I’m not being biased, they’re simply fat, well, the men at least, the women are usually beautiful, but I have nothing against Darwinism).
Dog delighted in these gardens, where he had open access to all the rolling slopes, was free to dig away at the flower beds so carefully planted by people earning about a pound a day, found no restrictions when approaching families enjoying picnics to discover what interesting morsels they had treated themselves to (you never know… the screaming might be an indication they wanted to lavish him with fragrant cooked meats and ice cream…).
The sun was bright that day, the sky relatively free of pollutants, at least the visible ones, but the air hadn’t reached the torturous temperatures of late spring or summer. Flowers sparkled with their particular magic… that beauty which reduces and relegates million-pound art to the dribbling finger paintings of kindergarten children. The sky was that blue… you know that blue… you often see it in the winter, early spring or late autumn… the blue that reminds you of cold and clean, that encompasses you in… freedom. A cool breeze cut through the warm sunshine, creating a pleasant sensation as the chill cut into the warm sweat of head and chest. Birds sang, rabbits made friends, squirrels brought each other small packages of nuts, and senile old joggers slurred memory just enough to make nostalgia into perfection (but, you know that blue – I wondered recently if there something primordial about that colour, reaching back to when obscured vision meant danger… the night, fog, heavily overcast days or heavy rain… all something to be feared for what might be lurking, unseen, and that blue, the light blue so many of us love so much, may be the very opposite, something safe, secure… but this is not really the place for such speculations)…
To the south of the lake is a series of manmade islands with bridged roads leading from one to another. Upon the picturesque islands are some of the most expensive restaurants in the city, predominately built in the style of ancient China. We were early in the day so these islands were all but deserted. I don’t know how many of you have ever lived in both the country and in one or more of today’s so very many metropolises, but for those of you who know the difference you may agree with how much relief the experience of just being away from all the people brings. People living their lives, coming and going, chatting, driving, beeping horns, riding bikes, buzzing along on scooters, calling to their friends, shouting at frustrations, admonishing crying children, gossiping, people watching every coming and going as they play cards in the shade, and all the other myriad activities life demands of social man. To suddenly be away from all that, in some world suddenly emptied of all that hurry and scurry, that… noise, is such a palpable relief as to be almost indescribable (perhaps in truth like every feeling in our pathetic attempts at communication). So, we took our time, much to Dog’s relief, as we’d been on the road for most of an hour now, and while he was still unusually energetic, he was certainly showing signs he was beginning to wane. I savoured the full experience of running through some post-apocalyptic land, still structured but depopulated of mankind; just for a moment allowing all the pressures of life, all the responsibilities, the timetables, the ‘necessities’ to vanish while soaking in the solitude, not at all intruded upon by having man’s best friend trotting along at my side.
Finally, we reached the west side of the lake… This area is for the mortals, those on more modest incomes than the other side of the lake. The west has a wide paved walkway running its entire length. There are lights and fountains in the water and pretty shows every evening for lovers, friends and families to walk beside. Beyond the walkway it’s mostly more spartan gardens with paths winding through the trimmed grass, but for here and there some complex of modern buildings housing bars and more affordable eating establishments.
There were more people here, walking, chatting, nibbling at snacks, and generally enjoying whatever free time their daily lives allowed. Here Dog found his second wind… perhaps the attention he received, perhaps, unlike me, and more likely, he simply enjoyed places with more people, he was, after all, an incredibly social animal (much to the annoyance of pretty much anyone he enthusiastically introduced himself to). He started to range here and there again, much to my chagrin as it was now my turn to flag along with heavy steps and leaden legs, and here I captured one of my favourite pictures of the little fellow. There are a series of statues along this part of the lake… mostly the usual nonsense designed to make people feel happy, and to condition them into what the good life should be – a couple skating holding hands, some children in a circle eating ice creams and laughing, that sort of propaganda (perhaps I’m too cynical, but then you haven’t had to edit secondary school books… a story for a different place – I’m doing my very best not to be political, and trust me when I say – that is a task worthy of Heracles himself).
One of these statues is of a medium sized running dog. It’s not too bad – the thing is stretched out at if the dog is running at full speed, floppy ears streaming out behind, tail rippling… Dog was momentarily muddled by the thing. From a distance I think he thought it a real dog, and he darted forwards to make his introductions, but as he approached, he became a little confused (there’s no real way of knowing what warned him… perhaps a smell, or its lack, perhaps the unnerving stillness of the beast, but who really knows). He ended up almost creeping up to the thing like some kind of hunting cat, chest all but scraping the ground. Then he had a sniff, looked at me, circled the thing, had another sniff… I was so delighted I pulled out my phone to take a quick snap. I’m not much of a one for taking pictures of moments, believing the taking of the picture destroys the moment (a decision I find I’m possibly regretting in my older years as my memory fails me on so many of the places, experiences, and friends I’ve had in the many countries I’ve lived in).
My timing was both just off and perfect… I missed the opportunity to catch the strange look of wary confusion and interest, but I did catch him deciding the thing wasn’t worth his attention as something more lively caught his eye. I, through pure luck, which is pretty much everything in this life – don’t deceive yourselves those of you with ‘plans’ – I caught him in full run just passing the stone replica. The final product shows Dog racing against this untiring gargoyle and just winning by a nose (I’m hoping to dig up some of my preferred pictures of my mutt and include them in this post so you might just get to see the randomly splendid moment)!
We finally returned home to our traditional ice-cold melon shared in the kitchen, a great consumption of water, and, in his case, panting away twenty minutes or so upon the huge, chill tiles of the well-insulated old house.
There is one more short running story I would like to share before I call this chapter a day…
Mid-summer, so forty degrees or so, and one hundred percent humidity – I decide to go for a run and invite Dog to come with me. Within ten minutes his exuberance has been severely curtailed. For the last five minutes he’s been dropping further and further back until when I look, he’s about a hundred meters behind and simply sitting watching me run away (admittedly he was running in those conditions wearing a fur coat – so he didn’t want to go fur… ha! Sorry…). I call for him to continue and he looks back the way we have come, then looks back at me again – the message is clear. I shout more aggressively, but he’s having none of it… Once again, he looks back towards home… I roar for him to obey (much to the general terror of any locals in the vicinity), and he utterly ignores me and starts to trot home (considerably faster than he’d been dragging his exhausted feet a few minutes ago – should have been nominated for an award for that performance). I have little choice but to chase after him, and as I close the gap Dog, unlikely fearful of me, but more likely concerned he’ll have to continue the run, picks up his pace, until the two of us… me shouting and waving my arms, him casting furtive glances over his shoulder, are running faster than we normally would in far more temperate conditions. Until… he hits a road… We don’t have many rules, he and I, mostly as long as we’re not causing too much trouble, we can pretty much get on with whatever takes our fancy, but as he’s so excitable, and so very… interested in things, he has one definite unwavering rule – he can’t cross the road without me (drivers in China wouldn’t stop, they’d probably not even notice while chatting on their phone and eating instant noodles as they drive – no, I’m not exaggerating…), and then he has to heel until I give the word. So, he gets to that wretched road separating him from the shady delight of home, and simply sits down and waits. By the time I reach him my worry and anger have evaporated and I’m just laughing at his consternated expression. He looks up at me, and I’d swear on a human that would have been ‘irritated dismay’, but then I’m a pure anthropomorphic at heart so… Well, he won – we went home!
Part 10 - Pita
I think I have mentioned before I very much enjoyed walking Dog late at night… well, early morning if I could get away with being up that late (freelance schedules can be both demanding and kind at the very same time). So, you’d often find us wandering the streets, delving through undergrowth, or scouting the perimeter of some fenced neighbourhood in the very darkest hours of the night.
One such night, not long after we had moved up in the world – quite literally, as we had moved to the eleventh floor of a quite expensive and exclusive area (something I will never do again – I cover this more exhaustively in my autobiography but flats in expensive walled neighbourhoods vs a house on a normal street are a very poor substitute… not only do we almost never come into contact with our neighbours, but did you know if you take an elevator up and down four times a day to the eleventh floor you’ll spend four days of your life a YEAR in a small box looking at a picture of a dentist flashing impossibly perfect, I don’t need a torch at night, only the blind are truly safe, teeth at you…!)). We were out for our normal evening walk when, from the almost pitch-black shrubs to the left of the path, I heard a rather pathetic, feeble mewing. On closer inspection it turned out to be a kitten so very young its eyes had not yet opened (I believe, but it really isn’t my area of expertise, that means it’s less than a week old). The thing was very thin, dirty, and searching with blind eyes for whatever was making the probably incredibly scary noise crashing around in its general direction.
Well, what else was I supposed to do… I picked up the little bugger, stuck it in my pocket, finished Dog’s walk and took the thing home (Dog paid it a precursory glance when I first found it, decided it not particularly noteworthy… a decision he came to regret… and immediately continued his late-night forages and gallivants).
We returned home and I tried to get the thing to eat a little… I had a cat before, a long time ago, unremarkably named Cat, but she was older, a little, when she came home and just devoured any meat product you threw in her general vicinity. This little thing was perhaps too thin, too scared, too young, too blind… (perhaps anthropomorphic reactions) – essentially, she wouldn’t eat anything I tried to feed her, until I gathered a little of the mince I had prepared earlier, chewed it up into a sort of mush, and then fed her the smallest morsels – an obviously time-consuming business.
I converted a couple of bowls for her; one with a little milk another with a little water, chewed and slobbered a little more mush, and left her to a cushion on the rug for the night.
The next day she, apparently tougher than she looked, had survived the first night in our less than cordial environment. Dog would wander over now and then, perhaps a little jealous at the attention she was receiving, give her a snuffle (perhaps a tad more aggressive than necessary), and then toddle off to get on with his own occupations… whatever they were.
Thus, it began…
The environment changed considerably with the adage of a female into our heavily male sanctuary. I don’t mean we started finding panties hanging from the bathroom line, or Korean soap operas invading our sensitive space (not a sexist comment, just a big favourite with most of my female friends at the time – perhaps you have to watch them…), but suddenly we were less… solitary. Dog would mostly do his own thing each day, and I would get on with whatever occupation driving me upon in that instant… now and then we would meet somewhere in the middle for a walk, a feed, a game or just a bit of a cuddle, but Pita, as she eventually came to be named (the one and only time one of my animals has had a name not directly derived from its species), was far more demanding…
She liked attention… I’ll pass over her interactions with me quite briefly as this has never really been my story – she’d sit on me when I ate, she’d walk on me when I wrote, she’d climb on me when I watched a movie, she’d wander in front of the TV when I was in a crucial fight in some PlayStation game, and she’d locate herself right behind me when I was shadow boxing, putting anxious images of changing her name to Pancake throughout my workout.
You may think I had it hard, but Dog… well, Dog suffered the brunt of the intrusion (and remember, I can only tell you what went on when I was home – the heavens only know what shenanigans they got up to when I was out for work).
One of the first games she learnt – apparently, according to my cat ‘experts’ (friends who didn’t have a cat between them), was instinctively learning to hunt, but having lived with the little minx I have to say I believed she did it just for the spiteful giggle – was to wait until Dog had eaten, walked, or had a good play, and decided to have a nice comfortable nap. He’d flop down on the thick rug, stretch himself out into an elongated position and drift into dreams of… well, before she came… probably chasing rabbits, after she came, devouring cats in some bloody conflagration of pent-up frustrations… and then, with infinite patience, emerge from behind a chair or creep over the sofa, belly flat to the surface, tail flicking this way and that like a snapping whip, until she was a foot or two away from him. Sometimes this would be ground level, but there were those memorable and spectacular moments when she’d finish her approach on the arm of a chair or the high back of the sofa, and then unleash herself in some all but instantaneous blur across the separating distance to land on my poor dozing buddy. She’d sink extended claws into the unprepared bugger and in less time than it took him to growl himself into an aggressive stance, she’d be gone.
Now, here’s the thing… I mean he didn’t like it – who would… but he tolerated it. Not once would he do more than snap a lazy ‘meant to miss’ worry in her direction. He never chased her around the room in some stereotypical culmination of millennia of hatred, he never waited for an opportunity to avenge himself on her small sleeping form; he never did a single thing to cause her hurt or suffering at all. He’d just grump and grumble a bit and then go back to sleep, often enough casting an admonishing glance in my direction – it was, after all, my bloody fault she was living here now.
The two of them were pretty identical when it came to meal times – there would be a race to finish and start on the other’s, or they would simply just start eating the other’s rather than their own – Dog would definitely have the advantage at this point, being physically much larger and far more willing to pretty much devour anything available, whereas her palette was a little more refined.
Eventually, they reached a compromise – or rather Dog just carried on doing what he wanted and she decided he was a giant teddy bear to be sat on, slept on, played with and generally tormented as any obedient toy should.
She wasn’t with us for very long, less than two years, as a flat on the eleventh floor wasn’t the best environment for a lively young cat. One of the girls at work who lived in a real house with a garden asked if she could have her and I agreed (there’s a story behind that too, but again, this is really about Dog, so I’ll tap it out somewhere else), but for a while I think he missed her, in his own way. He would wander the flat looking for her, he still slept with half an eye open for her surreptitious and violent invasions of his privacy, and there seemed to be a little sadness about him for a few months, although perhaps that’s just my own feelings overlaying any mistaken empathic moment…
In the end things went back to normal and we continued on much as we had before, but it was both interesting and comforting to know what a truly gentle soul he was… not in the least catist in the traditional understanding of the world, not only tolerant, as perhaps we should all be, but protective, in his own particular… Dogish fashion…
Part 11 - Bath Day
One last tail before I think I’ll call it a day. There’re a thousand more small moments that surface and sink, but I think this is remembrance and tribute enough. Some dogs love the water… I live by the sea at the moment and see plenty of the fellows splashing about in the chill water, happy and oblivious to the chill, but my Dog… he hated water with an unwavering animosity usually reserved for blood enemies. My Dog hated water so much if it was raining heavily, this animal who adored the outside, might even refuse a walk, and if he could be coerced to venture out, he would actually walk around puddles…!
Bathing was about the worst part… My Dog was capable of attracting awful smells in the perfume section of a department store. My Dog could find the one wretched item in an acre of flowers and then somehow, with just a snuffle and whiff, drench himself in its dreadful aroma. My Dog could have a bath, sit still in a sterile environment, and an hour later he’s just plain stink… or perhaps I just have an overly sensitive nose (which, considering the protuberance that travels vanguard to my every movement, might be very possible).
He would get a bath once a week, and being the intuitive, clever and most importantly… intellectually growing wretch, he soon discovered there were signs of his approaching drenching. He became savvy to me going into the bathroom and switching the shower on, or running the bath when I had all my clothes on, or in the middle of the day. So, it became a game of chess… move and counter… I would go into the bathroom – he would hide under the table. I would block access to the table (it was a big low coffee table; a pain to get down on hands and knees and drag the determined fellow out), he would slink into another room while my back was turned and the hunt would be on. He’d even offer me a growl and a slow snap if he was in a particularly testy mood.
Once he was in the bath or shower he wouldn’t move until his torture was over, but he would appear the absolute epitome of misery – huge, sorrowful eyes following your every move, long-haired massive ears framing a forlorn face, and long hair clinging to his sides, running with water as if his entire frame were weeping in deepest grief.
I’d have a selection of ratty old towels prepared, but the moment the water stopped the slippery bugger would slide through my hands, water aiding his bid for escape, and he’s be off around the flat… Shaking water droplets across the room… you know, onto the tv screen, drenching computers and any other delicate electronic device, managing to find their way into freshly made cups of tea and adding an interesting coating to a prepared lunch. He’d then decide my blankets, sofa fur, and rug to be far more efficient drying devices than towels and proceed to roll in this, rub up against that and generally drench pretty much everything except the towels…
We lived for a long time in a nice flat with a small paved garden so in the summer I could let him out to bask in the hot, humid sunshine, but in the winter the poor bugger would curl up beside my small mobile radiator on the rug, as we had freezing cold, huge tiles, on the floor… The animosity sizzling the air between those usually gentle eyes and me… Fixing me everywhere I went with a look I studiously ignored, but could feel burning dreams of revenge into the back of my neck.
Things did pick up…
My girlfriend for many years now decided his smell was simply unacceptable and went on a programme of sterilisation… He knew I was a soft touch and would milk the sorrow and pity without remorse of conscience, but she doesn’t suffer from the same anthropomorphic empathy, and soon he came to understand she was quite simply unaffected to all the learned tricks he brilliantly used to manipulate me. She wouldn’t disguise her preparations, and he eventually just gave up trying to escape… I didn’t mind… There’s just something delightful about seeing a girl strip to her underwear, don a pair of marigolds, heft various dog shampoos and towels, and drag the barely resisting fellow into the bathroom!
Oh, I still received all the blame, he didn’t even give her an annoyed look, he’d just emerge dripping wet and immediately fix me with this look that very same anthropomorphic empathy said “I can’t believe you let her do this to me; why didn’t you step in and save me!”, but… it was absolutely worth it…
Part 12 - Passing
He passed away not so very long ago… grey muzzle and blurry eyes…
I wish very much I could remember more of our times together; like most of life we don’t pay much attention to the mundane, to the little things passing us by in repetition and banality, but now, knowing he will never again be a part of my life, like most of us foolish humans, we regret not paying more attention to those little things, or perhaps we paid enough attention, but they fade into that background noise of our lives, lives we lived but barely remember…
What I know is that unfortunate accident, like most unfortunate accidents, bringing him into my life, led to one of the best experiences of that life. He was my friend, and in my way, like everyone… in their own incomprehensible ways… I loved him and find I miss him very much (thus this short little book). When circumstances and situation allow, I will get another dog (I’m toying with the name Fish… “I’m just off to walk my Fish”, “I’ll have that nice bit of bone for my Fish, please”, “Oh, I know I’m not supposed to by my Fish does love a little chocolate…” – the possibilities are endless…), but he or she won’t be Dog…