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20 March 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 12:04pm

Stupidly, I agreed to look after a dog. But perhaps it might help make the MacHovel a home

By Nicholas Lezard

Ding! A message pops up from A—, one of the Laird’s sons.

“How,” it asks, “do you feel about dogs?”

I am tempted to reply “I love them, but I couldn’t eat a whole one,” but that joke only works with children, and is of questionable taste anyway. Well, my feeling-for-dogs’ journey has been long: from childhood fear to mild distaste to acceptance to – following the tender comfort offered me by an ageing black Labrador in Devon, where I was pulling the pieces back together after being kicked out of the family home – deep affection. I get the point of dogs these days, and they seem to be very keen on me. OK, they’re keen on everyone. I suppose that is also the point of dogs.

“Love ’em,” I replied. “Why?”

Readers with keener and less self-absorbed minds than mine would have realised the sinister intent behind this seemingly innocent question. I am very fond of A—, as I am of all the Laird’s children (when you have as many as four, you’d think at least one of them would be a dud, but not in this family), and they give every indication of being fond of me. And so I reasoned, in my brainless way, that A— was at a loose end and thought to himself, “I wonder what Nick thinks about dogs? I know what, I’ll ask him. Every opinion he holds is wise and original. He does not follow the herd.”

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That’s how stupid I can be. The question in fact, as you will have worked out, really meant “could you look after our dog?” For A— and his girlfriend were coming to visit for the weekend, and A—’s mother is terribly allergic to dogs, and the demilitarised zone between the Big House and the MacHovel would provide an effective cordon sanitaire between dog and mother.

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Now, as it happened, A— had been cunning enough to ask me when I was about halfway through a bottle of nice plonk, so I was in an effusive mood. Also, I had been wondering for a few days when I was ever going to live somewhere permanently enough to be able to get a cat, for a house without a cat is not fully a home. Now I know a dog is not a cat but a dog is kind of like a cat, in a way, and it would banish the problem of loneliness that can be a side-effect of living in the middle of nowhere, and it would only be for a weekend. My favourite breed of dog, I explained to A—, was Other People’s Dogs, because you can play with them and hand them back once the magic has worn off. (I didn’t say that last bit.) I also explained that I didn’t do walkies, I did sitties. Walkies was his job. As were the dog’s jobs.

A— sends me a photo of the dog in question, who is called Hamish (“isn’t everyone in Scotland called Hamish?” asks a friend when I tell her about the impending visit), and he looks pleasant enough, largely composed of fluff as far as I can make out. The next day, after spending a frantic hour trying to make the place look fit for both human and canine habitation, up the drive I see a couple walking through the snow, accompanied by what looks like a very happy and very medium-sized hound of indeterminate breed, but he is golden and looks most genial.

I should have taken note of the two large tote bags A— was carrying, packed with items for Hamish’s distraction. Squeaky ball, blanket for sleeping, rubber bone, food, rolls of plastic bags for poo, the works. I’ve gone on a fortnight’s holiday with less luggage. A— and J—, his girlfriend, invited me to join them for Hamish’s walk. The snowfall was now a blizzard, so I asked him if he was joking.

Well, when they left him with me, Hamish and I got on fine, but I found it a bit wearing after a while. You can’t relax with a dog, the way you can relax with a cat. A dog needs attention from someone deeply invested in them, and it gives you a look when it thinks it isn’t getting enough. Hamish was giving me a lot of those looks.

I’d had to lock him out of the kitchen, as he learned that knocking over the recycling bin was great fun, but Hamish also had his nose stuck in an empty sardine tin, and I didn’t want him to hurt himself. It was rather like having a child. So he had a good rummage around, and had his tummy rubbed, which he was very fond of, but after that my repertoire of dog entertainment tricks began to run out.

But it was nice to have another consciousness in the MacHovel. The dog (who may as well have been called “Beelzebub” for all the notice he took of his name) accompanied me to bed, which was most welcome, for I am sick and tired of sleeping alone. And although I was relieved to hand him over the next day, his presence lingers; even in my dreams. 

This article appears in the 20 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency