There followed for me a period of hunkering down, of keeping away from any and all prospective partners, four-legged or with only half that. Eventually though it was time to move on. And despite the setbacks presented by Battersea Dogs’ Home, vicious Chinese food, and blind dates, my next attempt at finding either a boyfriend or a boyfriend-substitute actually started more promisingly.
Deciding that a dog rescue centre outside London might spare me an excess of violent pooches, I located a place that looked just the thing. It wasn’t far from Biggin Hill, and its countless residents pictured on its website were often quite adorable. Mostly, I would still be allergic to them, but at least they didn’t look like they might tear my throat out at the drop of a hat. One in particular had made my heart skip a beat.
His name was Bert. He was grey and rather rangy, and about eight years old, so he wouldn’t be around forever. His potted history described how things hadn’t been easy for him in life so far. (Tell me about it, Bert, I wanted to whisper into his drooping, hairy ear.) Apparently, he was looking for purely adult company as children unnerved him, and I also read how he would be happiest curled up with his owner by the fire on long, winter nights.
Children unnerve me as well. And I have an open fire, two in fact. And I don’t much like leaving the house on winter nights either, nor indeed on many others, nor much in the day, truth be told. So, I thought we looked a pretty good match. Soulmates, even. In fact, he sounded pretty damn well perfect. I imagined the website only omitted to detail how he was looking for someone with whom to rediscover the pleasures of playing bridge due to lack of space.
After parking the car, I went through to the reception and approached a volunteer behind the counter and said I’d like to view the dogs.
She looked at me sceptically, “Oh really?” Her voice had that slightly sarcastic tone you might use if someone asked if they could jump the queue in the post office. There was a small, dangerous smile playing about her lips like a cat spying a mouse within pouncing distance. “And have you made an appointment?”
“Oh yes, we ask everyone to make an appointment.” Her eyes narrowed. I visualised a little, grey tail hanging limply from her mouth.
“On your website it says you’re open between eight am and eight pm, and so here I am.” There was something in my tone even I objected to. It was like I was trying to imply: so try and keep me away. I was all fun, fun, fun. “There was nothing about an appointment,” I continued feebly.
“We always ask people to make appointments to view the dogs.”
“Anyway, I’ve come a very long way, and so if there’s any chance….”
“Well, I’m really sorry-”
If she could cut me off, I could do the same with her mid-insincere apology.
“As I was saying, I’ve come a very long way.”
Steeliness rather than fun was the order of the day now, I decided. I hoped she wouldn’t ask where I’d actually come from as it really hadn’t really been that far. Would I have to pick somewhere that sounded suitably distant without making myself sound like the sort of person who had nothing better to do than travel ludicrous distances on the off-chance of finding a dog I liked the look of?
“Well, as I say I’m sorry but that’s our policy.” She checked something on the computer screen.
“I had a specific dog, in mind, as it happens.”
She peered at me.
“Bert. Grey hair, bit knackered looking.”
She visibly softened. All the volunteers in the room shared a look with each other, the sort mothers might share as they talk of their sons gone off to war.
“Oh, what a lovely dog Bert is,” she said, palpably having swallowed the mouse by now.
“I know,” I said, feeling like we’d bonded at last. “He’s the one I’ve come for really.”
The mouse was suddenly causing her indigestion. “Well, I’m afraid he’s already been taken,” she snapped.
Oh no. Bert wasn’t to be mine. She patently wanted me to be distracted by this sad news. But I wasn’t having any of it.
“In that case, I’d like to see the others.” I wouldn’t let her see how the news was affecting me. “I have come quite a way.”
Then I realised distance is always relative anyway. Who’s to say what is far? On the open road, with little traffic, thirty miles might count as almost nothing. But if you’re a Russian soldier bogged down in the mire during the Siege of Berlin making it from one street corner to the next could prove an insurmountable distance.
She didn’t have the look of someone who might appreciate this sort of philosophising. Consequently, the long way / I’m sorry exchange continued for some time to come but I won’t list all the return volleys here.
She changed tack. “We ask potential clients to make an appointment. The thing is,” her voice, once more, having taken on that more emollient tone, “some of the dogs are very highly strung and find it very upsetting people just turning up viewing them. So that’s why we ask people to make appointments.” She stressed the word viewing as if it was a really quite mucky type of activity to engage in. Viewing dogs, you pervert.
“I see,” I said, not really seeing at all. “Okay, but imagine I had made this appointment, how exactly would you convey this information to the dogs?”
What did they do? Leave a note in a bowl, send the creature an email?
“Oh no, not another one coming in to view me, Sheila?” I imagined some bored-looking spaniel might moan. “And I had a nice afternoon planned, just putting my feet up, snaffling at my balls occasionally, watching the golf. Maybe a G and T in hand. And now you’re telling me there’s someone coming into ‘view’ me.”
The border guard behind the counter ignored my question. I decided to retry an old favourite. “The thing is, as I say, I’ve really come a long way.” The truth was the traffic around the Catford gyratory could have been oh so much worse, and I’d positively sailed through Beckenham.
The air between us reeked of impasse. Sheila, or whatever her name was, blinked first.
“We’re very busy,” she sighed, “but if you wait, I’ll get someone to go through registration with you.”
The next ninety minutes I sat in that room while my interlocutor and her colleagues threw me the evil eye from time to time.
Finally, a man, who until that point, I hadn’t seen, came up to me.
“Hi, I’m John. John Wilkins,” he said in a James Bond-ish rhythm.
If I tell you that John was a man in his early fifties, about five foot two tall, and about five foot two across, cuboid in fact, totally bald, other than his few strands of hair scraped across his head, Bobby Charlton-style, and with absolutely no teeth, as if they’d been removed not only for his own safety but that of others, and wearing a sweatshirt caked in dried vomit and faeces, you might think I was describing one of life’s losers. But not a bit of it. John, John Wilkins was, according the badge he was wearing, a Senior Rehoming Liaison Executive, and so had climbed to the very top of his own particular greasy pole.
“Interested in taking on a dog?” he asked. “That’s great news. Always happy to meet guys like you, Neil.”
People often think my surname is my first name and I’ve got used to having to correct them.
“Sorry Chris.” He now emphasised my name like I was being unnecessarily picky, and because he had no teeth in doing so he produced the wettest sound I’ve ever heard.
“So, Chris, dogs, dogs, dogs. I’ve got over a dozen of the little bleeders at home myself. For my sins. Couldn’t live without them though.” But in case I misread this line as encouragement, he continued in a deeper register, “Thing is though: we can’t just let our dogs out willy-nilly, I’m sure you can understand that.”
He showed me into a brightly lit room with a couple of low, primary-coloured sofas and photographs of dogs on the walls with their names and dates below. It was the canine version of visiting a theatre and seeing all the signed photos of actors who had once played there.
“This is the liaison lounge,” he explained. “A neutral space where dog and potential owner can meet and we can assess bonding potential. We want it to feel safe and unthreatening for everyone.” The dog had become a person in his sentence.
It had the feel of those rooms in television police dramas that are used to interview young children in. All very reassuring and unthreatening. In the corner was a low table with some plastic figures of humans and different dog types. Used I imagine by the dogs to indicate where the bad man had touched them.
John offered me the end of one sofa and he took the other. From somewhere, he had produced the most enormous file and opening it he said, “Just a few questions.”
With his legs crossed I felt we were at the start of a particular arduous edition of This Is Your Life.
“Question one. Would you ever leave your dog alone?”
At first, I thought he was casting aspersions. Would I ever leave my dog alone? What was he implying? That I’d get Rover back to my lair, grab him by the collar and declare, “You’re all mine now, all mine, all mine to do with as I will,” ending with a massive, devilish cackle.
And then I realised he simply meant would I ever leave the dog on its own.
Now, the thing about questions like this is that they’re impossible to answer. I quickly thought it through. If I said yes, I knew I was giving him the answer he’d be able to reject me for but if I if I said no, he’d know I was lying. Who on earth would ever say they’d never leave their dog alone? But it was the first question, the first question of what, when you considered the size of that bloody folder, must run into hundreds, and I didn’t want to start on a lie.
“Yes,” I said. “I would leave the dog alone. Sometimes”
John sucked air noisily through his mouth, the absence of teeth turning the sound into a shocked gulp.
“Is that the wrong answer?”
“I’m afraid so. We always advise you don’t leave your dog alone.”
I watched as he put a great big black cross against question number one.
“What? Ever?” My voice had taken on an incredulous falsetto. He had no teeth. I am unable to control the pitch of my voice at times of anxiety. We all have our crosses to bear.
“Yes, we suggest you never leave your dog alone. Dogs can find solitude very distressing.”
Earlier that day, I’d been kept waiting because I hadn’t thought to book an appointment with the dogs. Now, I was being told they should never be left to their own devices. They’re very fickle, I wanted to say to John, much more highly strung than I’d anticipated. On one hand you can’t leave them alone, yet on the other you have to put something in the diary if you want to see them.
“Really? You’re saying I can never leave a dog on its own.”
“Well,” he said, giving ground a little, “in exceptional circumstances then ten minutes.”
A voice inside my head screamed: I couldn’t even have a tricky shit in ten minutes. I’d have to keep getting off the toilet just to go and check the dog hadn’t slit its wrists because of a broken heart.
It went on and on like this. Whatever question he had for me, it was as if I was a water diviner ever searching out the wrong answer. After several pages, I said, “Look, I really don’t want to waste either of our time. I’ve come a very long way. You’re obviously not going to let me have a dog.”
John looked panicked, a couple of the hairs on his head he’d so carefully scraped across bounced nervously. “No, no, no, we don’t know that at all.”
“But every answer I give you turns out to be wrong.”
It reminded me of the time I failed my driving test, We had reached a yellow, criss-crossed box junction, and I was sat on it, and the moment I got there I knew I’d done the wrong thing and I’d ended up too far forward, and from that position I couldn’t see any traffic lights at all, and so didn’t know when to turn right. I strained my neck this way and that but still couldn’t see. But then it occurred to me that from the passenger seat my examiner might be able to get a glimpse.
“If you leaned back,” I explained, “and tried to get your head through the gap between our seats, you might be able to see when the lights go green, and then I can go.” I tried to sound very upbeat about all of this, almost as if it was a bit of an adventure, so that, if anything, she might give me bonus points.
“I’m afraid, I can’t do that Mr Neill.”
“Oh really? It’s just I can’t spot them from here.”
Looking back, I reckon she knew that already. I was still trying to keep it light and sound conversational however, almost like I was doing her a favour. As if sticking her head between our two seats was a bit of a naughty treat, like I was trying to tempt her into having a slice of cake with her cuppa. This examinee is fun, I wanted her to be thinking, not like all the other dull, nervy types I have in the car who just get on and let me examine them and don’t ask me to wedge my head between their seat and mine to tell them when the traffic lights go green. This one’s a hoot. I might sign him off for Advanced Driving here and now. Just as a thank you.
And then I had a brainwave.
“Here’s another idea.” I was full of them that day. “I get out of the car and stand behind it and when the lights go green I dash back in, and off we go.”
My examiner visibly tensed. It wasn’t the response I’d been hoping for.
“I will instruct you not to do that.” She looked quite clammy.
And then I realised that I didn’t need the traffic lights after all. Because the drivers in their cars behind me started sounding their horns, and that, I could fairly safely assume, was an indication that I should get a move on. That, and the fact that the traffic from both my left and my right was now maneuvering around me. Who needs traffic lights, I wanted to yell in this, my eureka moment?
Somehow I managed to join the traffic. I didn’t stall, which I thought must be worth something, and then once we’d both calmed down, I realised I wasn’t feeling quite the Highway Code problem-solving hero I had only a moment before. “I’ve failed my test, haven’t I?”
“We don’t know that yet.” A pre-echo of John Wilkins and all his black crosses.
“Of course, we do,” I yelped, now confident that nothing worse could happen. My dreams of membership of some elite, advanced driving squad now utterly dashed. “Two minutes ago, we were sitting in a box junction, I couldn’t see the lights, you wouldn’t help, so I suggested getting out of the car, standing at the back of it, and then making a dash back in once the lights went green, and you recoiled at my idea. I know I’ve failed.”
She looked down at her file of questions and simply said, “Please keep driving along this road, until I instruct you otherwise.”
When it was all over, after what felt like at least another two hours, we pulled into the car park of the examination centre, and putting her hands in her lap, she turned in her seat and informed me that I’d failed to pass my driving exam.
“I told you that about an hour ago,” I said.
“We didn’t know for sure at that point. We have to complete the test.”
I bloody did, I thought, and I’m not even the expert.
This is what it reminded me of the afternoon I tried to get a dog from a rescue centre on the edges of southeast London. Every question I answered got a great, fat, dirty cross against it.
Now, I don’t know anything about adopting children but I can’t really believe it can be any harder than this. The likes of Madonna can seemingly waltz around the world picking up children wherever she goes, but I’d like to see how she fares trying to nab a Border Collie cross from near Bromley. She wouldn’t stand a chance.
“Do you have a garden, Chris?” John asked.
At last! A question I could answer honestly but with an answer that surely would be the right one.
“Yes, yes I do.”
John smiled, a great black toothless hole of approval opening up in the bottom half of his face. I looked on proudly as he put a huge tick against this question.
“And your fences…”
“Oh yes, fences too,” I said, brimming with confidence now.
“How high are your fences?”
“Eight feet, nine feet, at least.” I had no idea if they were eight or nine feet, but they were high and I didn’t want to undersell them.
John looked up from his papers.
“That’s very high. Isn’t it?”
He now did the sucking thing again. “Eight foot? A dog can jump over an eight foot high fence.”
“No, really, I think it would be fine. It’s quite a small garden. There’s not enough space for him to take a run at it.”
John was looking more and more doubtful.
“When I say it’s small, it’s not tiny. Plenty of room for the little fellow.” I knew I was sounding desperate.
Anyway, how keen was this dog going to be to escape me. I wasn’t running Colditz, for crying out loud. We were going to be bridge partners.
“No, the thing is Chris, a dog can jump over an eight foot high fence.”
Look, it’s a dog I want. Not a bloody surface to air missile.”
There was another huge cross.
At the end of what had so euphemistically been described as a registration process, I said to John what I’d said to my driving examiner all those years before. “I’ve failed, haven’t I?”
John looked at me confused. “Not a bit of it,” he said. “You’re just the sort of person we’re looking for.”
None of it made sense, but I wasn’t going to argue. “It’s a shame Bert’s been taken. He looked perfect.”
“Bert was a very special dog,” John said, rubbing salt into the wound. “But there’s plenty more. We’ll be in touch.”
Returning to my car, I noticed a couple maybe a few years older than me, getting out of theirs. Poor sods, I thought. I know what you’re about to go through. They opened the hatchback. Out bounded Bert.
I would have recognised him anywhere.
“Excuse me,” I called, “that’s Bert, isn’t it?”
“He certainly is,” said the man, wearily.
“So, you’re the people that got him then? I’ve been very jealous of you.”
They looked at each other.
“He’s yours,” said the woman. “Take him now, if you want. Saves us going in.”
It was as if we were about to embark on a drug deal on the very doorstep of the police station.
“We don’t want any money. We just don’t want him”
“What on earth is the matter with him?” I asked.
Bert looked placidly between the three of us.
“He seems alright now, but he’s been a nightmare. We’ve had him a week and he’s torn every curtain in the place. All the furniture’s ruined.”
“There’s not a room he hasn’t done his business in. It’s not like we haven’t got a perfectly good garden. Do you still want him.”
I stroked the dog’s head and he looked up at me adoringly, his vast brown eyes fixed on mine. “Not sure I could cope with all that. Sorry, Bert,” I said, petting his lovely ears. Staying single for the time being didn’t seem such a bad idea after all.