THE 24 HOUR DOG
Sunday 13 July 1997
I made him walk on a lead and he jumped for joy, the way creatures do, and children do and adults don't do, and spend their lives wondering where the leap went.
He had the kind of legs that go round in circles. He orbited me. He was a universe of play. Why did I walk so purposefully in a straight line? Where would it take me? He went round and round and we got there all the same.
I had wanted to swim. I had wanted to wash off the hot tyre marks of the day. I wanted to let my body into the obliging water and kick the stars off the surface. I looped my dog-lead through a trough-hoop and undressed. Oh, this was fun, a new pair of socks to chew and an old pair of boots to lie on. His questioning head sank to a full stop and he didn't notice me disappear under the water. The night smelled of rosemary and hay.
Oh, this was not fun, his sun drowned and him lost in a dark world without his own name. He started to yap with the wobbly bark he had just discovered and then he discovered he could use his long nose as a Howitzer and fire misery into the fearful place where there had been no fear.
I used my arms as jack levers and raised myself out of the pool. I spoke to him, and he caught the word as deftly as if I had thrown it. This was the edge of time, between chaos and shape. This was the little bit of evolution that endlessly repeats itself in the young and new-born thing. In this moment there are no cars or aeroplanes. The Sistine Chapel is unpainted, no book has been written. There is the moon, the water, the night, one creature's need and another's response. The moment between chaos and shape and I say his name and he hears me.
I had to carry him home, legs folded, nose in my jacket, he was twice as big as a grown cat even now, but small as my arms would allow.
I had collected him that morning from his brother and sister, his mother, his friends on the farm. He was to be my dog, shot out of a spring litter, a coil of happiness. Bit by bit he would unfold.
He liked my sports car until it moved. Movement to him was four legs or maybe two. He had not yet invented the wheel. He lay behind my neck in stone-age despair, not rigid but heavy, as his bladder emptied his enterprise, and the blue leather seats were puddled under puppy rain.
We were home in less than five minutes and he staggered from the car as though it were the hold of a slave ship and him left aboard for six months or more. His oversize paws were hesitant on the gravel because he half believed the ground would drive off with him.
I motioned him to the threshold; a little door in a pair of great gates. He looked at me: What should he do? I had to show him that two paws first, two paws after, would jump him across the wooden sill. He fell over but wagged his tail.
I had spent the early morning pretending to be a dog. I had crawled around my kitchen and scullery on all fours at dog height looking for toxic substances (bleach), noxious hazards (boot polish), forbidden delights (rubber boots), death traps (electric wires), swallowables, crunchables, munchables and saw-the-dog-in-half shears and tools.
I had spent the day before putting up new shelving and re-arranging the cupboards. A friend from London asked me if I was doing Feng-Shui. I had to explain that this was not about energy alignments but somewhere to put the dog biscuits.
I re-routed the washing-machine hoses. I had read in my manual that Lurchers like to chew washing-machine hoses but only when the machine is on; thus, if they fail to electrocute themselves, they at least succeed in flooding the kitchen.
The week before I had forced my partner to go into Mothercare to purchase a baby gate. The experience nearly killed her. It was not the pastel colours, piped music and cartoon screen, or the assistants, specially graded into mental ages 2-4 and 4-6, or the special offers, 100 bibs for the price of 50, it was that she was run down by a fork-lift truck moving a consignment of potties.
I fitted the gate. I tried to patch up my relationship. I spent a sleepless night on our new bean bag. I was pretending to be a dog.
The farmer telephoned me the following day.
"Will you come and get him now?"
Now. This now. Not later. Not sooner. Here now. Quick now.
Yes I will come for you. Roll my strength into a ball for you. Throw myself across chance for you. I will be the bridge or the pulley because you are the dream.
He's only a dog. Yes but he will find me out.
Dog and I did the gardening that virgin morning of budding summer. That is, I trimmed the escallonia and he fetched the entire contents of the garage, apart from the car. It began with a pruning gauntlet, which he could see I needed. There followed a hanging basket, a Diana Ross cassette, a small fire extinguisher, a handbrush that made him look like Hitler, and one by one a hoarded collection of Victorian tiles. Being a circular kind of dog he ran in one door to seek the booty and sped out of another to bring it to me. He had not learnt the art of braking. When he wanted to stop he just fell over.
I looked at the hoard spread before me. Perhaps this was an exercise in Feng-Shui after all. Why did I need a Diana Ross tape? Why was I storing six feet of carpet underlay? I don't have any carpets.
The questions we ask of the universe begin and end with questions like these. He was a cosmic dog.
The light had the quality of water. I was moving through a conscious element. Time is a player. Time is part of today, not simply a measure of its passing.
The dimensionality of time is not usually apparent. I felt it today in the light like water. I knew I was moving through something that had substance. Something serious. Here was the dog, me, the sun, the sky, in a pattern, in a dance, and time was dancing with us, in the motes of light. The day was in the form of us and we were in the form of the day. Time would return it, as memory and as futurity; part of the pattern, the dance that I had refused.
He lay under the table fast asleep while I shelled broad beans. My cats, of which there are four, had taken up sentinel positions on the window ledges. The dog was bottom dog, no doubt, but twice as big as they were. They had not yet understood their psychic advantage. This dog did not know what size he was; he felt tiny to himself. He was still a pocket dog.
I looked at him, trusting, vulnerable, love without caution. He was a new beginning and every new beginning returns the world. In him, the rain forests were pristine and the sea had not been blunted. He was a map of clear outlines and unnamed hope. He was time before or time after. Time now had not spoilt him. In the space between chaos and shape there was another chance.
Night came. We made our journey to the pool. We swam back through the ripples of night. The light wind blew his ears inside out. He whimpered and fell asleep. When I finally staggered him home he was upside down.
I had bought him a bean bag with a purple cover tattooed with bones and chops. Who designs these items and why? What person, living in a town in England, sits down to doodle bones and chops? What kind of a private life does this design suggest? Is it a male or a female?
All these questions had presented themselves but there had been no alternative. A friend had once told me that as soon as she had become a parent, the discriminating good taste of her adult life had been ambushed by a garish crowd of design bandits. She was finally at the mercy of the retail mob. You want a romper suit? Well, they've all got bunnies on them. You want a doggy bean bag? Well, we cover them in an orgy of chops.
Chops away! Over he went in a somersault of yelping pleasure. Was this really for him? He hurled himself at it and cocked an eye at me from under his paw. Would I shout at him? No! He was a new dog. The world was his bean bag.
I shut the cats in the kitchen with their cat flap. I shut the dog in the scullery with his ball and his bed. I shut myself away in the room that is sleep.
I had read in my manual that a dog must be dominated. He must not sleep upstairs. He must sleep alone.
An hour later I woke up. I understood that my dog had not read the manual. He told this to the night in long wails.
I did not know what I should do and so I did nothing.
He had been used to sleeping in a heap with his brothers and sister. Now he was alone. He called and kept calling and this time I did not answer. Chaos was complete.
About 9 o'clock I went downstairs into the kitchen. The cats were on their perches, glaring at me with bags under their eyes like a set of Louis Vuitton luggage. "We're leaving home," they said. "Just give us our breakfast and we're off."
I fed them and they queued up at the cat flap like a column of ants.
I glanced in the mirror. The bags under my eyes needed a porter's trolley.
Next question. The dog?
I opened the door into the scullery. The dog was lying on his bean bag, nose in his paws, a sight of infinite dejection. I stood for a moment, then he unsteadily got up and crawled across the floor to me on his belly. As anticipated by the manual, I had become the master.
I let him out into the sunlight. I gave him his gigantic bowl of cereal and milk. I have always loved the way dogs eat their food; the splashy, noisy, hog pleasure of head in trough. I am a great supporter of table manners but it is worthwhile to be reminded of what we are.
And that was the problem; the dog would pour through me and every pin hole would be exposed. I know I am a leaky vessel but do I want to know it every day?
He's only a dog. Yes but he has found me out.
I clipped on his lead and walked him round the fields in my dressing gown and boots. If this seems eccentric, remember that my soul had been exposed and whatever I wore was of no use to cover it. Why dress when I could not be clothed?
He circled along in his warm skin, happy again because he was free and because he belonged. All of one's life is a struggle towards that; the narrow path between freedom and belonging. I have sometimes sacrificed freedom in order to belong, but more often I have given up all hope of belonging.
It is no use trying to assume again the state of innocence and acceptance of the animal or the child. This time it has to be conscious. To circle about in such gladness as his, is the effort of a whole lifetime.
The day was misty and settled on his coat like a warning. I was looking into the future, thinking about what I would have to be to the dog in return for what he would be to me. It would have been much easier if he had been an easier dog. I mean, less intelligent, less sensitive, less brimful of that jouissance which should not be harmed.
It would have been much easier if I had been an easier person. We were so many edges, dog and me, and of the same recklessness. And of the same love. I have learnt what love costs. I never count it but I know what it costs.
I telephoned the farmer. "You will have to take him back," I said. "I can't do this."
It had been the arrangement between us from the start; when there were six puppies in a squealing heap and one by one sensible country people had come to claim them. There is no reason why I should not keep a dog. I have enough land, enough house, enough time, and patience with whatever needs to grow.
I had thought about everything carefully before I had agreed to him. I had made every preparation, every calculation, except for those two essentials that could not be calculated; his heart and mine.
My girlfriend carried the bean bag. I walked the dog, gaiety in the bounce of him, his body spinning as the planet spins, this little round of life.
We were escorted off the premises by my venerable cat, an ancient, one- eyed bugger of a beast, of whom the dog was afraid. At the boundary of our field, the cat sat, as he always does, waiting for us to come back, this time by ourselves.
As we reached the farm, the dog hesitated and hung his head. I spoke to him softly. I tried to explain. I don't know what he understood but I knew he understood that he would not be my dog any more. We were crossing an invisible line high as a fence.
For the last time I picked him up and carried him.
Then of course there was his mother and his brother and sister and I gave them biscuits and bones and the bean bag was a badge of pride for him. Look what he had been and got.
We put him in the run and he began to play again, over and tumble in a simple doggy way, and already the night, the pool, the wind, his sleeping body, the misty morning that had lain on us both, were beginning to fade.
I don't know what the farmer thought. I mumbled the suitable excuses, and it was true that my partner had just heard she would be working away for some weeks, and that it is tough to manage one's own work, the land, the house, the animals, even without a brand-new dog.
What I couldn't say was that the real reason was so much deeper and harder and that we spend our lives deceiving ourselves of those real reasons, perhaps because when they are clear they are too painful.
I used to hear him barking in the weeks that followed. His bark aimed at my heart. Then another person claimed him and called him Harry, and took him to live on a farm where there were children and ducks and company and things to do and the kind of doggy life he never would have had with me. What would I have done? Taught him to read?
I know he won't be the dog he could have been if I had met him edge to edge, his intensity and mine. Maybe it's better that way. Maybe it's better for me. I live in the space between chaos and shape. I walk the line that continually threatens to lose its tautness under me, dropping me into the dark pit where there is no meaning. At other times the line is so wired that it lights up the soles of my feet, gradually my whole body, until I am my own beacon, and I see then the beauty of newly created worlds, a form that is not random. A new beginning.
I saw all this in him and it frightened me.
I gave him a name. It was Nimrod, the mighty hunter of Genesis, who sought out his quarry and brought it home. He found me out. I knew he would. The strange thing is that although I have given him away, I can't lose him, and he can't die. There he is, forever, part of the pattern, the dance, and running beside me, joyful.
Jeanette Winterson's collection of short stories will be published next year by Jonathan Cape
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