Once again, it was back to the family home to cook the lunch and play with the kids. I had been prepared for an old-fashioned Christmas because my friend D— had sent me an advent calendar at the beginning of December. A proper advent calendar, mind, with pictures behind the doors rather than chocolates, or whatever gimmick prevails these days. She had to go to some trouble to find it: apparently children of today are simply not satisfied with the old-fashioned way.
I, however, was delighted: more than delighted, in fact. I opened the first window and there were a couple of sheep, no, three sheep, with snow on their backs, standing in a snowy field. The second window had some people walking to a snow-covered church. The third showed a donkey in the company of a couple of robins standing on a snow-covered fence. By this stage I was completely unmanned. There is an innocence to these pictures which all but reduced me to tears. That much of the calendar coincided with a cold snap that included actual snow somehow made it even more poignant. This is what you want from an advent calendar: lots of snow, lots of animals. Sheep, donkeys, bunny rabbits, robins, the lot. I don’t even mind having a bit of religion in there. Screw you, late-stage capitalism, and your mediocre chocolates and culture of cupidity.
The animal theme continued when I rolled up at the family home. Before the door opened I was expecting a dog. I knew there was a dog because the family got one in lockdown. A big, black Labrador of gentle demeanour and zero intelligence, which cost in the region of £900, a sum I have since used as a unit of currency. For example: my rent is slightly more than one dog a month. I earn, before bills and taxes, around two dogs a month. Pay these bills and what am I left with? I don’t like to think about it. A paw? A nose? A bit of the tail? Anyway, this time I was greeted by two dogs, the second one also a black Labrador. I hadn’t been drinking, so I knew I wasn’t seeing double.
It turns out that, thankfully, my family is not insane enough to buy an extra dog. But they are a soft enough touch to take on the retired guide dog of our blind neighbour, who is now too frail to cope with hers. This second dog is ten years old, which is at the upper end of a Lab’s life expectancy. His eyes are rheumy and his muzzle is greying. He walks slowly, as if all his dog years are a burden to him. In me he recognised a kindred spirit, ie someone with more to look back on than to look forward to, and he took to sitting at my feet wherever I went, looking at me with devotion, or maybe he was trying to tell me something. Like: We are not long for this world. Thanks, Lionel (for that is his name). The Estranged Wife made a very good point: he hadn’t had much eye contact for most of his life, and was now getting in as much of it as he could before going to doggy heaven.
Having two big dogs in a not very big house is quite the challenge. One fully grown Labrador takes up a fair amount of space; two of them somehow seem to take up three times as much. As the saying goes, I like dogs, but I couldn’t eat a whole one. Each of them has his problems. The younger of the pair, Louie, sometimes howls terribly because he is upstairs and no one else is. But he has been well-trained and will not eat food off the table; Lionel, on the other hand, has clearly been getting away with murder for the best part of a decade and close vigilance has to be exercised in the kitchen when food is being prepared.
I thought we’d done pretty well in this regard, but while we were watching Die Hard (believe it or not, a film I hadn’t seen before) Lionel threw up in front of the telly. I didn’t recognise any chunks, but then I wasn’t looking too closely as I felt strongly that this wasn’t my problem, and besides, he ate it all up again immediately. My favourite Bible verse came to mind: the fool returns to his folly as the dog to his vomit. Or is it the other way round?
Anyway, all was sweetness and light until the evening of Boxing Day, when we went to the local pub with the immediate family of the eldest boy’s girlfriend. Overcome by fond memories, I mentioned to my son that his sister had been conceived in a flat above this very pub. I think I might have said this more loudly than intended and it carved out something of a tense silence in the general conversation. I have been ordered to apologise; until I do, I am, so to speak, in the doghouse.
This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege