PIGGY IN A MUDDLE

Portia was once the happiest of Vietnamese Pot-Bellied Pigs, her life - and her owner's - a long, carefree idyll of swine, women and song. Then melancholy entered her soul...
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IT WAS on Christmas morning three years ago that first I met my pig. In a shadowed corner of the barn a heap of straw shuddered, was still, shuddered again. The children stood solemn and expectant. Motes of dust floated off the straw into the cold bright day and nothing happened. Then she was there. As a submarine surfaces, so a small black snout emerged, two blunt triangular ears, a cubic little creature, Medium Vietnamese with a snippet of Berkshire. She was quite wild then, and I spent many hours in the bleak January afternoons sitting on the barn floor, talking, coaxing, offering apples while she remained as far away as possible, always in profile, wearing an expression of intense cunning. It was cold and boring and I began to brood about my middle years and how very little I wanted to spend them like this. The daughter who provided the piglet had retreated to New York and central heating and glitzy urban life. Everyone else was in London doing grown-up things. I remembered that in childhood I could spend all day sitting about with animals, indulging in anthropomorphic fantasies. Not now, not any more. And a pig is for life, not just for Christmas. One afternoon, as I was wondering how long they live for anyway, she tiptoed towards me, seized the apple and reversed, chomping and champing and foaming at the mouth. Her little eyes glittered with triumph. I could see that she thought that she had outwitted me. So it was that our relationship began, on the strict understanding that she was cleverer than I was and would do things her way only.

The pig's name was Portia and she was kind enough to respond to it, trotting nimbly from the bramble thickets and sere marsh grasses which represent my garden. More spectacular results could be gained by singing her special rather simple song: "She's a pig, she's a wig, she's a piggy wig wig, she's a wiggy piggy girl." Gruesome as this sounds, it was well worth it to see a gambolling pig, a pig fleet of foot, bucking and caracoling. She was free always to wander where she pleased, and she showed a strong sense of territory, only twice ever straying beyond the bounds of my domain. It was on Easter Monday when she chose to visit the village and hold up the thronging holiday traffic. Suffering from city dementia, motorists were crying: "It's a wild boar." Photographs were taken; people got out of their cars and daringly approached, but not too near. Portia was oblivious; she was licking a squashed hedgehog up off the tarmac. My sons, sallying forth to a drinking bout, were obliged to intervene; she would not move. The novelty had faded and the traffic jam wished to inch onwards. There was nothing for it but to sing her song. Alert, responsive, the pig raised her head, listened for a moment, and sped back up the drive. The boys cowered in the hedge, uncool for ever.

Her other excursion did not go so well. This time she was found uprooting shrubs in Mrs Hooker's garden. Mrs Hooker was absent, enjoying an afternoon at the Young at Hearts Club, but Will, her neighbour, tried to lure Portia homewards. This didn't work. He tried to shoo her; this worked even less. A pig at bay glowered from the splintered shards of the flowering currant bush. Summoned by a child, I ran down the drive to find that Will had just lassoed her. She somersaulted, she reared, she flung herself about like a dervish. And she screamed. I had never heard such screams; Jack the Ripper might have been doing all his victims simultaneously. They could be heard four miles away at the Young at Hearts Club. Then came silence. Will had pulled the lasso off but the pig knew nothing of it. She had passed into a catatonic trance; she was a stone pig, standing on her four short legs, breathing lightly but completely out of it.

I was distraught. I thought she would die. She must die at home. Just as one might move a statue, so we transported her up the drive, lifting, setting down, lifting. She did not flicker an eyelash. But as we reached the house the puppy came bounding out. The puppy was fond of Portia and Portia enjoyed his company. Together they would lie on the grass and snuff the breeze. Sometimes they and the hideous dwarf pony played chasing games, taking it in turn to pursue and be pursued, always skidding to a stop before collision. Now the puppy was licking Portia's terrible staring face. And now her snout trembled, her ears flickered, her eyes focused. Very slowly she came back to life.

Another puppy, a terrier, had a less romantic encounter with the pig one windy summer afternoon. This I observed from a distance, helpless in my car. There stood the pig, gazing dreamily up at the shifting clouds and there, behind her, horribly attached, was the terrier, pumping vigorously. This monstrous incident did not produce any pogs or digs, and I believe that Portia was quite unaware of it, her personal geometry being such that she is unable to turn round except by executing a U-turn. None the less she has been a trim and active pig, and she used to enjoy going for unambitious walks with me until some officious person pointed out the dangers and legal red tapes attached to the business of Pig Movement.

On one particularly idyllic stroll through silent woodland she spotted a man in the distance and fled to the church for sanctuary. From infancy she has disliked most men, especially my son-in-law and my middle son, both of whom she has bitten. She bit them because they were in the kitchen where she liked to be. Her favourite upright position was leaning against my legs under the kitchen table. When she had done this for long enough, she would emerge and chuck a few chairs around, using her head as a battering ram and catapult. Like many pigs, she had a boisterous, hooligan side to her nature, and a great relish for effect. Slamming doors was another satisfying pastime. Her extraordinarily acute sense of smell led her to go through handbags to extract an apple, to identify cartons containing fruit juice and on one occasion to steal a rustic wine-box containing some fine Bulgarian vintage. She was furtive with the wine-box, scuttling up the kitchen with it clamped in her jaws. Beneath the window she paused and set it on the floor; resting one trotter firmly on top she gashed the box with a single snap of those lethal incisors. A ruby fountain sprang towards the ceiling, falling back gracefully to rise again and play about the pig. Noisily she drank, catching the liquid as it leapt, catching the joy as it flies. Through the window the sun shone from the bright blue heaven; the pig stood ankle deep in her alcoholic lagoon and still the fountain played. Her fondness for wines does not extend to beer, a draught popular with many pigs of lesser sensibility, but on the evening when she had consumed a bowl of whisky trifle, a silent and balletic pig pranced beside me through the dusk towards the barn. Her tastes in food are demanding; not for her the bucket of pig slops, potato peel and vegetable trimmings. Salad is acceptable only if dressed with olive oil, carrots are too dull to contemplate, and you can keep your brassicas. But ratatouille and pumpkin pie provoke cries of ecstasy which I can liken only to sex noises on television.

While she is not an asset in the garden she is not destructive; she learnt quickly that she should not lie in flowerbeds, and she does not normally go rooting. She is addicted to geraniums, one tiny vice. In hot weather she will lie in the shade or wallow in a paddling pool or dig a shallow grave to serve as a dust bath. In all these activities she reveals a nature which is profoundly sensuous, mirroring the voluptuous curves of her swaying roseate belly and belying the staccato elegance of her small black feet. Certain members of my original Scottish Presbyterian family cannot bear to look at her. Not so the local Labour candidate, however. I spied him with his red rosette, coming up the garden, and shrank behind the curtains. The pig lay slumbering on the lawn. The candidate peered round and, feeling unobserved, bent down and kissed the sleeping beauty. She jerked into consciousness, saw the red rosette, saw the man and fled, doing her Jack the Ripper shrieking. Red as his rosette, the candidate knocked on the door. Neither he nor I mentioned the incident.

This hatred of men is a big nuisance when things go wrong. Portia's medical attendants have to be wooed from far-flung outlying areas where they have women vets. I had to try three different practices before I could find a vet (female) who was willing to cut her toenails - it is impossible for me to do this because she goes into Jack the Ripper mode immediately. Pigs die from stress, and they die from shock in anaesthesia. They are a nightmare to treat. I had tried unsuccessfully to obtain some anti-stress homeopathic pills to proof her against the toenail ordeal, and was startled when the homeopathic doctor advised me to have a police surgeon standing by since it seemed there might be an element of violence. After this disappointment I did find a female vet who refused to come because she had trimmed three of another man-hating pig's feet, carefully doing each foot on a different Wednesday, and after the third visit the pig had lain down and died. At last an intrepid young woman arrived, accompanied by a nurse, and sedated the pig with a blow dart in the manner of David Attenborough and the white rhino. Even this modest tranquilliser, she warned, was potentially lethal. It didn't seem to work, and a second dart was blown. The pig shrieked piteously, her whole being concentrated in one gaping set of jaws. The nurse and I cornered the pig with an old trampoline; the vet hung upside down from the barn wall, there being no space left in the improvised corner; the toenails were cut from the upside down position; and the screaming went on. I thought I too might die of stress.

Indian summer brought tranquillity to the pig; she winnowed the harvest field by moonlight, stately but agile on her smart new trotters. One late autumn afternoon I walked beneath a wild cobalt sky; seagulls planed on the wind high over the sepia oak trees, and long shafts of light shed random radiance. On a distant slope a huge pig stood, invested suddenly with unearthly glory. Beyond, his fellows rootled disconsolately in the mud, consigned to outer darkness. I mused then on Fate's inconsistencies and thought that despite everything mine was a lucky pig. I should not have had that thought; or perhaps it was doom's harbinger.

For now, after a life so full of peril and pleasure, the pig has turned her face to the wall. Since October she has refused to leave her barn. She is in deep melancholia and she throws her water round her stall, flinging the bowl contemptuously out of the door. She eats, she sleeps and that's it. I have tried music, companionship, cats, toys, bunches of soothing herbs, mulled wine and rescue remedy. Nothing works. I don't know what to do. A wise woman called one day and she suggested that Portia might be pining for maternity. This could lead ultimately to 11 melancholy pigs facing the barn wall. I might become a latter-day Circe. These pigs could never be for eating, but pigs are not popular now as pets; indeed, I believe pig sanctuaries are opening. "Their day has gone" someone said the other day. "Like the alligators in New York." O tempora, O mores. !

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