Today, a dog, not Dog, some black-brown-drool combo rather randomly decided to check if his paws could reach my shoulders. To say I was taken off guard is rather like saying I’m not surprised when my children offer to buy their own lunch.
The quizzical canine, having measured his length against mine and determined, I imagine, we are both a 38 inch chest, proffered a quick peck (I think he might have run to tongues but I’d only just eaten) and sauntered off. His (he was rather obviously a he, having testes that resembled fur-covered kettle drums) owner shrugged in a ‘no harm done’ sort of way, offered a ‘just as well you stood still’ and wandered after Cerberus.
All of which brought back a holiday memory from the mid 1990s…
When the Lawyer was about seven and the Vet four, we bought a timeshare in Devon, not far from Buckfastleigh. It was a cottage, one of seven attached to a manor-cum-farm house and nestled in a small valley with splendid views, a salty tang to the air from the proximate sea and a set of terrifyingly narrow and high-hedged roads that you had to negotiate whenever you wanted to go anywhere. They were like herbaceous tunnels and we, the Textiliste and I became as adept at driving forward as reversing. Some days, trying to reach the beach felt like one was a motorised Sisyphus.
At some point in those mid 90s I gave up playing competitive sports – rugby and cricket depending on the season. Partly that was to spend more of my precious spare time with the family; partly it was because bits of my body failed to repair themselves as rapidly as they once did; and partly it was because I found that, having ended a game of rugby with a face that looked like Hannibal Lecter had tried to pan-fry it, it was not conducive to winning new work the following Monday in my role as a partner in a law firm. Thus I took up running to keep reasonably fit.
Both children and their mother have never been early risers by inclination, unlike me. Consequently, I was always able to sneak off for a run before the house had begun to stir. And in all honesty, there was little to beat the circuit that took me out the front door, up the hill and then on a four mile roller-coaster around those lanes.
You did need to keep your wits about you. No one, not even the locals went especially fast but still a lone jogger needed to be ready to hop up the verge and out of the way as soon as you heard any car engine. Often times I was hidden by the hedges, in a sort of green gloom, from which I would emerge at a gate or other opening which showed me some awesome vista of Devon cultivation, or the sea, or Buckfast and its Abbey.
About half way round the route took me downhill. It was at this point I could see for miles and that included the road ahead. Having put in the effort to climb high, seeing an empty road, breathing in air that didn’t taste like it had had a curry the night before I felt the urge to run. I would lengthen my stride and just fly.
Ah me. To be in my thirties and able to do that…
One day, I spotted a chap on horseback ahead. That happened occasionally and, given their height, they could be easily seen above the hedge tops. He was perhaps half a mile away and I knew better than to hurtle into him, but still there was plenty of time before we encountered each other so off I strode.
Imagine, if you will the scene. Yours truly, clad in white T-shirt, blue shorts and blue and white trainers, I must have cut a dash – or I would have done if I hadn’t put on the green socks I had been wearing the day before. Moving at a brisk medium I arched round a long right hander, imagining myself leaning into the curve. I was not concentrating that hard because the rider would still be some distance away.
So it was that I didn’t immediately spot what was ahead, and when I did I didn’t immediate register what it was.
A Pack of Hounds.
Out for their morning constitutional.
These beasts are of course breed to chase things that run. One likes to think that instinct is limited to Mr Fox but sadly I now believe that it covers a fairly wide spectrum. Or it could be the Master of the Hunt had a thing about lawyers and I was giving off a, no doubt, subtle but distinctive Parfum de Loi. Whatever the cause, as soon as Beast One, the Alpha Slobberer spotted me he was off.
Viewed by an objective bystander, it might have appeared as if the Hound was merely expressing his undoubted joy at meeting another mammal enjoying the early sunshine. To me it felt like the fast approaching muscle missile had probably missed out on his breakfast.
Other equally peckish pooches entered into the spirit of things with some alacrity and followed suit.
This was going to end very badly when suddenly Dog One stopped as if yanked by an invisible chain. Dogs Two to Twenty-Seven similarly braked on a sixpence. Behind them the rider had appeared, a thin whistle to his lips, calling them to order.
How does one answer that? The transition from happy jogger to fast food had been swift. Now time seemed to be standing still, unlike my heart which was still mimicking a super-fast game of Pong! manically bouncing off my ribs.
‘If you ease yourself into the hedge and stand still they’ll just move past and ignore you. That ok?’
I nodded. Part of me wanted to turn tail and run but that didn’t seem wise, since he did have a magic whistle. I drew myself up and pushed into the hedge. Old hedges are full of spiky scratchy plants but I didn’t care. This felt like sanctuary.
I have no idea how many dogs there are in a typical pack. This one must have had fifty. As they got close I realised that, individually they were all rather beautiful, a bit gormless looking and full of energy. I smiled as they filled the road and went past. They were a seething mass of noses and ears and legs and paws and those that squeezed past me gave me a good sniff and the occasional lick.
‘They’re friendly,’ I offered as the Rider came up alongside me, dogs milling around the horse’s legs.
He eyed me rather sourly. ‘If you behave,’ he said sternly.
And they were gone. Tails wagging they disappeared round the corner and suddenly it seemed like I might have dreamed everything.
I’ve never seen a hunt, never felt inclined to see one so I was rather taken with this pack. I like dogs and after the initial ‘wooahh’ moment things had gone well. I extracted myself from my hedge-home and began to jog again, composing the story of my encounter for my family.
I’d not gone ten strides when I was assaulted by the most appalling smell. All around me, on the road, dog faeces lay in squashy and squashed lumps. I suppose, given how many there were, expecting them to shit neatly and, more to the point, expecting the Rider to scuttle after them with some sort of supersized poo bag was never going to happen. I would need, literally as well as metaphorically, to tread carefully.
But, and here’s the thing, I’ve smelt dog poo. It’s horrid but not as horrid, as intense, as close…
It was then the true horror of the aftermath hit me. Not only had the dog’s evacuated their bowels across the road but also, given that they were squeezed between the high hedges, across each other. And those that had shared their space with me had, albeit inadvertently generously included me in their excrement. Looking down there was a tide mark at just above waist height where the delightful pack members had streaked me with at set of turd tattoos.
The smell was beyond rational description. Had it happened to me recently, Russian spies might have been suspected of some sort of radioactive poisoning, so bad was it.
Have you tried to run and extend your neck as far away from your shoulders as possible? It is extremely painful. Those ten minutes back to base were appalling.
But as I descended the private road, back to the cottages, another problem posed itself. There was no way I could go indoors clad in such clothes. I would have no choice but to streak.
And as night follows day and the buttered side always lands face down, so it was that the young family whose children liked playing with ours were standing outside their front door, by their car as I trotted into the courtyard. Their faces told me they were aware of my approach long before they either heard or saw me. They gawped, much like those people in cars who pass a road accident.
I stood, barely able to breath, beyond explaining, willing them away.
I suspect it was at that moment I resolved two things: one, you could stick jogging where the sun doesn’t shine and, two, I was never going to be a hunt supporter.