Do you have any pets?Oh my. How life moves on, leaving tyre tracks over tender portions of your anatomy as it goes. After I sold my horse—because I couldn’t afford him: it had been a gamble, I knew it, and I lost—which must be close to ten years ago, I updated the answer to that question like this:
Three whippets and a 1965 cream-coloured MGB convertible. The whippets lie around in graceful, anatomically incredible heaps and assist in the Doing of Literature. They know the system, and if we aren't at our desks by 9 am they come round and stare at us accusingly. It's astonishing, the force of accusation beaming from the eyes of a creature that barely comes up to your knee. I seem to have had to give up horses for the moment so the MG is my horse equivalent: exhilarating and temperamental. With your eyes half-closed -- especially if you privately think the old classic MGs are the most beautiful cars ever made -- she actually quite begins to resemble the perfect, cream-coloured ponies of your distant childhood fantasies, the ones who might secretly be unicorns.
Those three whippets—Holly, Hazel and Rowan, to whom Dragonhaven is dedicated—have all gone on to that big squashy sofa in the Elysian Fields, and very happy they are there too because the silly rule that they can’t get on it till a human sits on it first and invites them has been dismissed forever. There isn’t a day that goes by, however, down here in mundane reality, that I don’t think of each of them in her turn; most of my favourite walks are ones I first discovered in their company; and the current canine generation often strikingly remind me of who has gone before—or strikingly remind me how different they are.
There are only two of them this time around, because I have only two arms for holding two long extending leads. I feel that leads are a necessity with sighthounds in this landscape, which is riddled with roads and barbed wire, when they can be over the county border after a rabbit before you’ve drawn breath to call them. (Whippets are, pound for pound, the fastest dog on the planet. Greyhounds are only a little bit faster, and a lot bigger.) And Peter at over 80 years old no longer feels like racing over the countryside the way the five of us used to.
Chaos and Darkness, AKA the hellhounds, are litter brothers, born August 06, seven-eighths whippet and one-eighth deerhound. Our whippets were all little—Hazel never quite made twenty pounds, the other two were a pound or two over: but they were long-legged and whipcord-muscled and you’d never mistake them for small dogs—so these boys at a pound or two over forty pounds (Darkness) and a pound or two under (Chaos) each seems enormous in comparison (especially when I have to heave them over dog-impassable stiles). I was also not prepared for dogs who can lay their heads on the kitchen table, or your desk. The whippets were all the right size for putting their heads on your knee and looking at you beseechingly about one thing or another, probably involving a lap or a sofa: when a hellhound wants a lap, he just throws his front half into yours, and when only the three of us want to watch TV together we need a camp bed in front of the sofa for extra leg room. (It’s an old horsehair sofa with a camber, and it’s remarkably easy to slide off of.) I find it very difficult to negotiate the concept of air space with a dog, although they’ve (mostly) learnt that objects on tables and desks are forbidden.
The main shock to the system about the hellhounds however is that they’re boys. I don’t do boys! (Male dogs pee all the time! Male dogs pee every five feet when they’re out on walks! And they pee on everything! I put them on short lead and frog march them past the antique shop, which usually has a few chairs out on the pavement, to lure in passers-by.) The majority of the dogs I’ve ever had much to do with, with one notable exception, have been girls; even back in my house- and pet-sitting days the critters I bonded with tended to be girls. But when I saw the ad in the local paper for ‘whippet lurcher puppies’ it was a year since my last whippet had died, and the first local ad for any sort of sighthound that I’d seen. (Note that they aren’t really lurchers, they’re longdogs. Lurchers are any sighthound crossbred with anything that isn’t a sighthound; longdogs are any sighthound crossbred with any other sighthound. Whippets and deerhounds are both sighthounds. But people generally know the word lurcher, and generally don’t know longdog.) I had begun subscribing to a country-sports newspaper for the puppy ads in the back—I wanted a working rather than a show dog family—but the whippets all seemed to be in Yorkshire or Wales, and I wanted to see the little furry thing before I bought it. So I was instead in the process of deciding to adopt an ex-racing greyhound (or two), and had half an appointment—if one can have half an appointment—to visit a greyhound rescue not hugely far from here.
And then this ad. And I made a little hole in the floor getting to the phone fast enough. The woman sounded very nice, but after saying there were eight puppies and four were available, she asked cautiously if I was looking for a dog or a bitch? And I said, oh, a bitch (or two), I’ve only ever really had girls. And she said that there were only two bitches in the litter and they were both already spoken for. This stopped me about two thirds of a second—hey, I was seriously whippet-deprived by that time—and I said, fine, boys are fine, when can I come see the litter?
The rest is history. Much of it to be found in the blog. Although have I ever told the story of how I finally made up my mind to have two of them? Karma, it’s all karma.
But good karma for my MG has run out. She’s for sale. I don’t want to sell her, but I don’t really have a choice; I’ve barely had her out of the garage since I brought the hellhounds home. When it was undersized whippets, I was always going to figure out a way to put some kind of mesh roof over the slender fillet of space that passes for a back seat in an old MGB, because the whippets would have fit. The hellhounds won’t. And in my MG’s heyday I was using her to commute to ring bells—my home tower was twenty minutes away, and my most regular second weekly practise slightly farther yet. My home tower now is a two minute walk away (or a one minute bolt on Sunday mornings to not be late to ring service) and my second weekly practise is too far to walk but too close to recharge the battery.
She’s not only a car to me. I hope she goes to a good home.
I also want to mention my poor budgie. That was during the eighteen months I was really flattened by the first full onslaught of the ME. I wasn’t walking dogs; I couldn’t. I suppose I wanted something that would keep me company while Peter was out with the dogs and I was home alone with the several hundred rose bushes I was too feeble to take care of either. And I’d always rather fancied one of the small talking birds. Because of puppy farms I was chary of pet shops for any purpose; I found a (relatively) local breeder who had huge open aviaries and obviously adored their birds. They bred show birds which appears to mean large bulgy feathery foreheads which look very strange to me, and they were happy to sell me a young bird who was insufficiently bulgy. I picked him out because he was so beautiful: I can’t remember now what you call the colour, but if you take the standard budgie turquoise and take it down to something near opal, that was what Angel looked like. He was a young bird, but he was still past the age where he’d be easy to teach to talk, and I didn’t. He’d perch on my finger though—astonishingly warm, those tiny claws—and he made nice friendly bird noises.
He only lived a year. When he began growing listless I found a specialist bird vet who went off on a rant about overbred show birds: wild parakeets live thirty years, he said. You’re lucky if a show bird lasts five. He could do nothing; and one morning Angel glided down to the bottom of his cage . . . and stayed there.
I’m just not good about things dying. I was so traumatised by Angel’s early death that I haven’t tried again with a bird, although I still think about it. The specialist bird vet said that in the case of budgies, you’re better off with a pet shop bird. Those bulgy foreheads on the show birds, by the way, are for some reason known as buffy. I named him Angel because I named him Angel, but it was Peter who said, ah ha! He’s Angel because he isn’t Buffy!
However I do have a horse to ride again. I’ve had horses to ride several times since I sold Impi—registered name Impala II. His previous owner had called him Impy, ugggggh, and with a misspent childhood reading H Rider Haggard I had no trouble immediately changing it to Impi—but this is a particularly nice one. She’s even a pretty mare with a beautiful face although I have to say she’s grey, not cream, and I really doubt there are any unicorns very close in her ancestry. But I feel a great rise of spirits when I walk down the stable row toward her, especially when she puts her head over the door and whinnies.