The column: A shaggy dog story

When all else fails in the search for community and companionship, Howard Jacobson finds that he can rely on old Scruffy

I don't know whether it's a phenomenon of the late lenitive Nineties but I've noticed that nice, meaning pleasant, has returned as a term of approval. X is nice, isn't he?

No he isn't.

Nobody's nice. We speak as we find, of course, and no doubt we find as we are, but I've never met a nice person in my life. Sometimes agreeable, yes. Given to sudden hysterical impulses of interpersonal consideration, maybe. But root and branch nice, nice to the bone, no, never. We do what we can with the cesspit that is our disposition, that's the best that can be said of us.

Here lies Y - he was gross through and through but he tried to do better. Requiescat in pace.

As for niceness ab ovo - niceness in nature, forget it.

And then I meet Scruffy.

Scruffy is a 12-year-old mongrel - not counting by dog years - which means he'd be a querulous, forgetful old fart were he human. He belongs to a couple of distinguished lady-writers from New South Wales with whom I have become friendly in Broome. Scruffy is not an only dog; he has a step-sibling - Jack - who is a bitch, whatever her name implies to the contrary. Jack is younger than Scruffy and possesses more conventional good looks. Pointier ears, whiter teeth, longer legs, more alacritous rump - all that. She also has youth on her side, which can be an attractive quality - in a dog.

But I have become especially fond of the old fart. He has a charcoal grey coat, shot through with ageing silvery hairs, which become him. And sad, experienced eyes, the colour of amber, under beetling, somewhat mouldy- looking Robert Menzies eyebrows. And a dejected demeanour. In other words, he is statesmanlike. He comes over to me, when I am in a chair at his place, and drops his snout on to my lap, much as we imagine Sir Robert Menzies doing to the Queen. He isn't looking for comfort or consolation. And he isn't looking for a biscuit or a Bonio either. He has no expectations. A bit of community in elderliness, that's all he's after, and I'm more than prepared to offer him that.

He was a wild dog when he was young. An adventurer. A runaway. He once traversed Sydney, from the far northern suburbs to the south, negotiating the Harbour Bridge at rush hour, entirely on his own. We have that in common. I packed a bag and ran away from home, too, when I was six - all the way to my grandmother's house, three doors away. Our eyes meet over that. Our buccaneering youth.

I have no history to speak of with pets. I was given a hutch full of rabbits when I was very small, but they ate one another. I won a goldfish that suffered a heart attack. And I was passingly fond of my father's labrador, Ricki, before he fell prey to depression and committed suicide in Heaton Park Lake. So I welcome the chance to take Scruffy and Jack paddling on Cable Beach.

They are not water dogs. Broome is not their home. They live in the southern highlands of New South Wales. Where the surf doesn't come hammering at their front door. But then I'm not a water dog either. Yet another happy coincidence.

I'm a touch bolder than they are, though. I am at least prepared to roll around in six inches of foam. Whereas they leap as though someone has set fire to their paws the minute the sand starts to suck in moisture beneath them. It's my wife who finally persuades them to get wet. She being an all West Australian girl who can vanish under one wave only to appear on the crest of another, laughing, hallooing, collecting Commonwealth medals. The dogs sort of see the fun in that, and venture out to join her, a centimetre at a time. Scruffy further than Jack. Infinitesimally. "Go on, Scruff, go to Ros." Until the surf suddenly breaks under him and the fur on his belly becomes seaweed.

He lowers his head and walks out of the sea. No complaint. Just the dejection of experience. Yet again he has trusted, and yet again life has let him down. He looks at me with his melting chocolate eyes, and if I could make it all better and more rational for him I would. I dry his flanks with my towel. I wring out his dripping eyebrows. "Who's a good Scruffy? Who's a nice doggie?"

I am.

He is. The nicest doggie I have ever known. We walk back along the sand, the four of us, the girls with the girls, the boys with the boys. It is still only six in the morning, so the beach is deserted except for the dawn power-walkers and the body-cultists doing their slow-motion energy rebalancing. Together, Scruff and I, also in slow-motion, pause to observe an exquisite mating ritual: two feral love children, she with her hair in Broome braids, he the same; he with the golden hairs on his shins glistening, she the same; chains of adoration each for each about their ankles. They skip out of their clothes as though they are one creature, a single young snake shedding its skin, then they run hand in hand into the ocean.

Scruffy looks at me and I look at Scruffy. We remember, oh yes we remember.

The love children are now dancing on the water, waltzing in the waves under a spinning ball of fire, kissing. One become two become one again.

And then Scruffy goes over to their clothes. And looks at me. And looks at them. And looks at me again, resignedly, as though down the pipeline of years. And ignores the cries of "No!" from Ros and Jack. And lifts his leg ... And pisses on their shirts.

Nice one, Scruff! Who's a nice doggie?

I am

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