Christmas is always a poignant time for your Down and Out columnist. Thanks to the decency of his Estranged Wife, it involves a temporary reinsertion into the family home. On the one hand this is fun: I get to hang out with my children. I get to drink the enormous brandy left out for Santa and sleep on the sofa in front of the fire. And I get to hang out with the Estranged Wife and think: how much we have diverged.
She is certainly not the same person who threw me out of the same house 13 years ago. She’s doing a lot less shouting and crying, that’s for sure. And I’m doing a lot less crying too. Nowadays tears only come when I look at my bank balance. And if there is some friction – as when, for instance, I splash some water from the kettle on to the wooden kitchen surface – I can ask, in a detached, ironical and not at all infuriating way: well, whose bright idea was it to install wooden kitchen surfaces in the first place?
However, one thing that will be very different this year is that this time round I am going to be sharing the house with a dog. Some of you may remember that a few months ago I wrote a column in which was mentioned a somewhat expensive dog. I have a confession to make: this was that dog. The subterfuge was necessary, for feelings were running high at the time. My general line of thought was that if I had the thick end of 2,000 quid burning a hole in my pocket, pretty much the last thing I’d think of spending it on would be a pedigree dog. In fact, it wouldn’t be the last thing I’d think of, because I wouldn’t think of it at all.
But there it is: a more or less fully grown black Labrador will be sharing the family home. I do not have a problem with this: I like a dog. But only on the condition that I am not even tangentially involved in any responsibilities pertaining to its welfare beyond patting it on the head, ruffling its ears, and asking it who is a good boy.
My middle child, who is also a good boy, had a conversation with me about this the other day. He, too, has determined that while he is fond of the creature, as he is of all God’s creatures, within reason, this fondness does not extend to a fondness for taking it for walkies, or for being woken up before dawn in order to feed it.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the past few months,” he says, “it’s that I am very much a cat person.” I learned this too, and the hard way, when I had to look after Hamish for a day in the MacHovel a couple of years ago. (Hamish is a dog. You’ve probably worked that out but it’s best to make sure.)
At the time I was rather down in the dumps and finding it even harder than usual to get out of bed, and this is not the kind of behaviour that dogs consider reasonable. When I got out of bed it was only to move to the sofa. In my defence, it was a very fine sofa. But Hamish would look at me with sad, imploring eyes. People who say animals do not have any intelligence are mad. Hamish’s look spoke with eloquence.
“Play with me,” he’d say. “I’m bored.”
“Ah,” I’d reply, or my eyes would, “you may be bored, but I am suffering from ennui.”
It had all started so well. Hamish found me fascinating, and a delight to welcome into his world. Pretty much all dogs are like this these days (when I was a child, they were much more aggressive; or I was more scared of them). Whenever I stand outside having a cig, which is fairly often, every dog that passes me stops to say hello. Their owners apologise, but I like it: that moment of fleeting intimacy, that yearning look in the dogs’ eyes, as if to say, “Ah! What might have been!”
Cats are not like this. Their only demands are to be fed, and made a fuss of, until they’ve had enough. Living with a cat is like how I’d imagine living with a supermodel would be: a complex and shifting set of impossible demands, and unattainable beauty. Living with a dog is like living with a berk.
Anyway, I have every suspicion that the family dog and I will get on famously. My only reservation is that he will change the internal geometry of the house. Cats can slink around you almost invisibly; dogs do not possess this ability. I don’t have a problem with this, but I do wonder how his presence in the kitchen will affect me while I am cooking.
I have been assured that he is well-trained enough not to make a raid on the Christmas goose, but I have seen and read too many cartoons to take such assertions at face value. But until then, I will assume that he is, indeed, a good boy.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special