Woof, well I’ve decided the boss is probably a little nuts, if not barking mad, like me when I get my teeth into something really juicy and my eyes start to glaze over like a hopeful serial killer. You see he soon decided to give me something called a birthday and not quite knowing how old I am, the pretty Greek vet having only guessed my age from my rascally size and the condition of my pearl white teeth, he chose April 26th, 2015. He says it’s because of some human poet, or something, over four hundred years ago, but sometimes I have no idea what he is wittering on about. Not that that was his exact birthday either, but the day of something called a baptism, when some bloke in a dress dipped him into a stone pool of water in a place called Stratford. Odd, these humans. The very thought makes me shiver, like some bedgragled sewer rat, just as I did when he dragged me into that stand-up shower room in Hampshire, just because I had been romping through all that country mud, trying to be free and have fun. Where was all this indoor rain suddenly coming from, it was worse than being left outside in Corfu? Quite a different prospect too, Hampshire, to my mountain retreat in Greece. Great vistas of Cyprus trees and the lovely sea were suddenly swapped for winding English lanes, fenced fields, rolling downs and that square of green garden behind the long thatched cottage, with its white walls and motor bike parked so obtrusively outside. Not that we lived in the house, me and the boss, we were only allowed occasional access to the kitchen, the loo, well the boss was, and of course secretly that horrid shower too, but instead lived at the end of the garden in something called a forge. It was once an old blacksmith’s workshop, with a tiled roof and big chimney stack, and a cranky old metal step ladder inside that took you up though a hole to an attic room in the pitched roof, with open beams and a little broken window, where something called a futon doubled as a bed. Quite difficult to navigate if you are blind drunk, my new home.
With a stone step up to the metal door, beyond the fence, then four wooden steps down to the sunken floor, and filled with old furniture, a heavy green sofa and lots of plastic storage boxes, stuffed with books and bricabrak, it was quite an odd choice for the boss’s Bohemian hideaway, if choice it was. But at least it had a splendid new wood burner that glowed like dragon fire in the windy nights and the boss made good use of the art deco drinks cabinet, with its door that swung open on a cantaleevered bar, well stocked with bottles of warming whisky and green tinted Ginger wine. Perhaps it was really a dressing cabinet. The boss of the cottage opposite had billed it as a kind of Ayuvedic sanctuary in times of trouble, a place for healing and retreat in the village of T-, which the boss would certainly come to question, but two blokes had made it their home already. One, J, part actor, part seafaring man, part public school drop-out type, who the boss had taken flying the summer before over the sparkling Solent, had used the retreat for nearly a year in times of strain and discovered the art of locking himself behind that metal door and appearing to be out, when there was too much psycho mayhem outside. He said as he lay there in the summer he could hear the sound of cows chewing the cud, but maybe it was the drugs. Another, the South African J, working in the great old city of Winchester with the really barking mad, had apparently lived there for six whole years. His was the horrid portaloo upstairs that the boss disguarded with the chemical bottles and the baby wipes on the recommendation of a lady with big feet. That smell is frankly septic.
Of course the boss had also made special contingency plans for my own arrival that frosty January. A visit to the little pet shop in Arlesford, and to the country store Scats and Pets At Home in Winchester had opened a whole new world and produced two shiny metal dog bowls, for water and ruffage,a big packet of crunchy Iams, various sachets of meat, a splendid extendable lead and a comfy rectangle of fluffy bed laid thoughtfully by the fire. I think the boss is a bit gay sometimes, though mightily generous, but I am afraid I opted for the big green sofa, when I found I couldn’t follow him up those metal steps through the ceiling, and my whining died away, as his face suddenly vanished above me. Oh yes, and a plastic green poop scoop he hung prominently from the shed in the garden, as a sign of thoughtful intent, and that little metal disc around my neck. It had popped out of a big automated engraving machine in the fancy pet shop, in the shape of a bone, and proudly engraved with the motto Rascal – Boss’s Telephone No: – David Clement-Davies. Twice in fact, because we lost the first when he attached the lead to my new bone tag by mistake and I jumped too hard.
So here I was, in happy Hampshire. Or perhaps that is a moot point, or certainly a mutt one! It had something to do with that little pink sign pinned up for months on the forge wall that the boss kept eyeing suspiciously as we returned from walks, saying PLANNING PERMISSION, a bit like the sign that appears in Watership Down, that endangered rabbit book. Good book that, certainly worth a Fiver, though not many positive role models for dogs! Thing is the boss of the cottage was planning to do up the place, to add a much needed bathroom, kitchen and loo. To make it a real home, though not for me or the boss, despite the apparent arms of unconditional friendship extended.. Not that he ever had the courtesy to tell my boss when our time might be up anyhow. At first the word was that permission had been denied from the big Estate, whose own boss is family of the other thatched-cottage boss, something to do with the houses beyond, or heritage status in the South Down’s park. Hmmm. Then it was turned around and that marvellous burly bloke in the bowler, he who would recite Dylan Thomas under the stars, Captain Cat and all, and worked as a builder, was called in to discuss the realities. He had often worked with one of the younger inhabitants of the thatched cottage, flatmate of the boss in a sense, the young fellow with the issue with Christmas puddings. On that note I might say getting home safely at night could be a little tricky because, like that motorbike parked so obtrusively on the pavings to the cottage door, it seems humans constantly mark their territory too, consciously or subconsciously, and so the path to the forge was usually strewn with axes, logs or disembowelled washing machine parts, from the burgeoning scientific fringe of the Hampshire commune.
It was on the boss’s birthday though, to return to that subject , on something called Epiphany, for the spiritually literate, and an impromptu party down the local pub, aided by the generous souls behind the bar, that the boss heard his so called host discussing it. He had not wanted to come much either, or remembered even a card, despite that book the boss gave him on his own birthday, A Time of Gifts, about the land of Romania. But his host was never one to allow others to be happily any centre of attention. Perhaps I should digress then and tell you a little more about the village of T-. Down a winding track off one of the main dogging sights in England, whatever that is, it lies around the windings of the river Arle, hence the ford somewhere, and is the kind of place you might imagine inspired either Brigadoon or The Fog. The running joke is can you ever really escape and would you want to? In fact a great legend hangs over T-, and a great court case too, but its centre is the estate and the big house, the houses, barns and farms that line the minor road and, of course, being held in the arms of the local pub. I was sitting by the fire there one day, dreaming of Corfu, when a charming older bloke started recounting to the boss what it had been like before the onslaught of machines. Whole communities linked to the work on the estate, hand harvesting, tithe cottages, swelling public and lounge bars, lives richly interconnected. Now the smart money from London, advertising, bananas, a touch of media in the other boss’s case, so he says, dominates the smartly done up houses and the old post office, apart from the farmer who is turning his hand to champagne and drives his own combine harvesters, and meanwhile the trade of a publican can be a precarious one. Taxes on beer, VAT, drink driving laws, the fear of being too generous at a lock-in or the cause of affairs, drunken laughter, disapproved of fireworks, noisy folk staggering home under the brilliant stars to disturb the more genteele on the village council. Those who like such things had been struggling for the prize of best kept village of the year, while others had been dreaming of revolution. Then I open my jaws to yawn and curly out my tongue when the boss tries to explain that even the estate is in the hands of higher powers, like the agents Carter Jonas. That both English history and capital has always centred on ownership.
A charming bloke called Lennie ran that pub once, a local legend. It picks up on Thursday, and Friday is village night, but in a winter mid week you can hear the ticking clock, the cracking spit of the fire and the sound of your own heartbeat. Great charm that place though and among the friends the boss had made real warmth and love. You just ignore the dogs you don’t want to talk to, or try to. It’s funny how I forget, wherever I go, wherever I arrive, being a travelling little Rascal, that all those humans already have history, an endless pattern of intersecting stories, even if they will not recognise how similar they all are in their fear. They intersected most at that thatched cottage, or that pub. A place of intense dramas, sad stories, happy ones and long tongued babbling gossip. H, propping up the bar, coughing like an asmatic piston engine, whose family name decks those bits of stone in the churchyard up from the house, looked out for by the kindly bald chef, a dab hand at the arrows. S, that bright-eyed sailing heart, lady of dogs herself, with a hoarse, loud laugh, and very game and warm. The supposed posh folk on the other side of the bar, that very nice champagne socialist who wanders through talking the horrors of his recent unemployment, then parks one of his four cars and takes his family off to trek Morocco. Or the big boss, my boss chatted to about Graham Greene, a spy and Catholic writer no one reads anymore. But why am I going on about the silly humans? The characters that most interested me were the animals, before the dogs started barking in T-.
P, the ex City publican, had looked at the boss as if he was suddenly one of us, now I had arrived, as if he could now understand, meet ladies down the Winchester car park perhaps, or had put his name on The Hampshire Register. Which arranges the scrutiny of suitable romantic folk, of the right income, culture and tastes, of course, but charges lonely ladies much more than men. I think one of the clientele was on it already, but I must admit the boss seemed to perk up a bit at my way with the ladies. P also said something very nice, firstly ‘i’d have him’ and then to the boss ‘now you have a best friend for life’. But no, too much about humans. You see P had three canine residents himself, Rosie, Honey and of course old blind-sided Nelson, with canine dementia. At first all I knew was smells when I danced through the door and cocked my leg on other trails laid inside. P looked at the boss knowingly and handed him a big roll of kitchen paper. So I began to do something down the pub called socialising and the measure of their welcome was the measure of how nice those people are, and their animals too. Mighty Igor, a noble dog who looks like S’s human father, and that yappy Jack Russell named after Japanese horseradish. Yet for a dog like me there is always a caveat. The deep seated knowledge in every owner of the mirror that I and my friends might throw on their own ability to be in the world. It goes quite deep this relationship with humans and animals, you see. Take that farmer talking at the back over a beer of his cows who had miscarried twice so faced an inevitable journey in the direction of the dinner plate. I mean, you have to face realities. It’s life and death out there. The boss was already facing realities when such a normally sedentry fellow was suddenly forced up at dawn, to crunch through iced mud or over frosted fields, ravishing when blushed with the pink of dawn, to test his vocal chords trying to call me home or to stumble along lonely lanes too late at night. Rascal. RAScal. RASCAL. Come back here, you little… He was noticed on THE ESTATE, or we were. Meanwhile with the feeling that the sword of Damacles was about to descend on both our heads though, courtesy of PLANNING PERMISSION.
So to the nub of the matter and that other stranger to foreign climbs I mentioned, the lady from Romania who arrived the very same day at Luton airport, just ten minutes from where my master later picked me up. So as they were settling in back home he was trying wondering if he’d recognize me, how much I’d grown and how well Claire and Stimati had treated me. Incidentally, long, long before I was born, 168 years in dog terms, at the count of seven, 1990 in human counting, the boss had been to Romania, obviously from Luton Airport and talking of that had once seen Lorriane Chase in an airport in Spain. You know, “Were you truly wafted here from paradise?” He went in a freezing January, just after the pack leaders there had been shot in something called a Revolution, the Ceaucescus. He remembers armed soldiers at the airport, bullet holes in the hotel lift in Bucharest, listening devices so large even the CIA could uncover them and very interesting times. He also remembers astonishing scenery, the mighty Carpathians and a culture split between an attempt at a modern world and peasant Russia in the 18th Century. He travelled all over, for five weeks with a beautiful blond in a fur hat he only made love to back in London he was so depressed, and some of the sights and stories found their way into one of his novels, about wolves and stuff.
But anyway we were all in England now and the cottage boss had borrowed the boss’s car to pick her up, but while being perhaps a tad nervous at arrivals, had also noticed a borrowed set of golf clubs in the vehicle, his own. Now I am not exactly proud of my own boss for turning to a game like golf, which not only spoils a good walk but bans dogs from enjoying vast swaiths of the free Hampshire sward, but it does have its Zen attractions and it’s damned good fun pooping in a bunker to scandalize the Club House. The point is the cottage boss then proceeded to make such an absurd fuss about the cleaning of said instruments, that had languished in the shed under a mountain of cobwebs and had been considerably spruced up anyhow, you might think he thought someone was trying to steal his etchings. This in fact was simply part of something humans call a PATTERN, or maybe PLANNING PERMISSION, namely repeated behaviour whenever he returned from foreign climbs and needed to be the centre of attention. Also because he wasn’t sure he liked the boss in the forge anymore, despite nicely calling him one of the family, but didn’t quite know how to work the politics of it. It had happened before with a fellow called N, a hippy window cleaner and gardener who did have the unfortunate habit of appearing in polite society with bits of loo roll stuck to his bared stomach, or nearly burning down the place, the rascal. This might well earn him the epithet of being a bit of a wanker and yet he was strangely also something of a fond character in the eccentric fabric of this supposedly healing place. The boss and he had stood in the rain in the garden during the most astonishing electric thunderstorm and raised their hands to The Dogs.
Talking of wankers though, or that very un-wolf like habit of always trying to go for the supposed weakest link in the pack, the cottage commandant now began to direct his insecurity towards the end of the garden, where I was trying to kip happily on that long, green leather sofa, thoughtfully protected from my lovely paws by purchased coverlet, and the boss was trying to do some work and get his life back. I said hello to this human fellow one day, who claims to be much taken with the environment, even if he does frighten pregnant cows by running wildly through fields, and while graciously letting me stay I was a tad suspicious when he remarked his arriving girlfriend would like me, much as he doesn’t like the effort of dogs himself. Like me she did, and I her, waifs and strays together, as I did that fellow who loves aged Christmas pudding too much and his pretty girlfriend too, the boss’s other flatmate. But alas, I fear that human writing was already on the forge wall and our happy pack days were numbered. More of which I shall tell you anon, because now I have to go and have a bone, if nothing like the one so prized by the happless gardener.
David Clement-Davies has appointed himself Rascal’s boss and has published several novels, often involving animals, including Fire Bringer, The Sight, Fell, The Alchemists of Barbal, The Terror Time Spies and The Telling Pool. Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, described Fire Bringer as one of the best anthropomorphic fantasies known to him. Last year, based in Hampshire and with help from friends and readers, after a long and bruising battle with his own publisher in New York, he successfully crowd funded Dragons in The Post, which he is still working on.