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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Recruitment Genius: Head of Content and PR

    £35000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Mid / Senior

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing digital agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Partnerships Manager

    £50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a newly-created partne...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor