The Dog’s Obsequies and a Personal Best

Striding along the beach by the majestic Dornoch Firth (for we are in Scotland) I thought of our new electric tooth brush. Unlike past toothbrushes this includes an attachment that sits on the wall and communicates wirelessly with the brush unit. It measures the time that you spend at your brushing in units of thirty seconds. If you persist for two minutes you are rewarded with a smiley face but otherwise you get a frowny one, which you also get if you press too hard on your teeth. You can fool it but its built-in bias is pessimistic. Sometimes you complete the two minutes but the face fails to light up; never the other way around. It’s sufficiently reliable, however, that you want to take it seriously.

It also tells the time.

I am embarrassed by how much I want to impress it. If I conclude the brushing process in less than two minutes (and after all, why not? I do not have all my teeth) it sits there as a reproach, sourly recording three units only, and it remains like that until either I clean my teeth again or the better half does hers. On at least one occasion, when I was in a hurry, I was tempted to leave it running while I got dressed in order to achieve the smile. Needless to say, the better half is much more ruthless and is prepared to leave the evidence for all to see of a brushing that falls short of the full two minutes. She has a full complement of teeth but some of them are from Hungary.

We were striding together along the majestic Dornoch beach in order to scatter the ashes of our old dog, who died a year ago last December, on the same day as Dave Brubeck. It was his favourite place of all and when Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family painted him in his personal Heaven, at my request she located it on Dornoch Firth. For various reasons we had not been able to get to Scotland to perform this duty until now – mainly because of having to be in London to sell our old house and then to nag the builders who were remodeling the new one – but it was something that we had long been looking forward to. We had come there earlier in the week but it was high tide then and it seemed wrong to cast his remains into the sea or the dunes. Now it was right. The sun shone, little clouds bubbled satisfactorily over the distant hills, two fishing boats lay a mile or so offshore, the voices of the fishermen audible across the flat sea. There was absolutely no one around. Bella was discovering the beach for the first time, with the same breathless excitement with which the old dog had explored it.

I tried to feel elegiac but instead I was thinking about our electric tooth brush. This was because of the better half’s iPhone. She has an ‘app’ which tells her loudly, whenever she goes out, how far she has gone and how fast she has done so. I imagine that this is of more interest when she is running than when she is out for a walk with me. It reveals the speed for the last hour and also the average speed for the outing as a whole. If the phone is within range of a mobile signal it also tells her where she is. We get this last information by Dornoch Firth but not on walks from the cottage up into the mountains, where there is no signal. As she strode along the beach holding the box that contained the dog’s ashes, just as she had made the final journey to the vet holding the dog himself, assessments of our progress, communicated in a tinny female voice, necessarily disjointed and of American origin, could be heard from the general direction of her bottom, against which the iPhone was stowed. Each time a speed was divulged she strode faster. In spite of the solemnity of the occasion she was nagged by her iPhone into aiming for a Personal Best in dogs’ obsequies, just as I am in thrall to my tooth brush.

Incidentally, just as the better half’s iPhone told us exactly where we were, so could I tell you, but I won’t, in case you come and spoil it.

We found the exact place that we had decided on, by the shore. The dog was in a plastic bag inside a formal cardboard box, which was secured with a ribbon. We had brought a knife and opened the box. Then the better half opened the plastic bag with her teeth. The dog was unexpectedly gritty; he was very thin when he died and it must have been nearly all bone. We took turns to pour him out. He hung in the air and settled on the sand and in the water. I put my finger in and put a trace in my mouth. He would be washed away by the next tide and if what they say is true within six months there would be molecules of him in every jam jar notionally dipped into every part of the sea throughout the World.

Meanwhile Bella, on whom pathos is wasted, was becoming restless, so we went on along the beach. When we got to the end the better half struggled on through some unappealing scrubland so as to achieve exactly five kilometres [about three miles] for the outward part of the journey. Then she got lost in some dunes, which probably added a bit more to the total length. Bella tried to find her and got lost herself, possibly diverted by a rabbit. All ended well but, as the better half remarked, cheerful despite the loss of any chance of a Personal Best on this occasion, it would have been a shame to dispose of two dogs on the same walk.



Coincidentally I was reading the chapter entitled ‘The Crow’ in Rennie Sparks’ new book Wilderness. Rennie Sparks is half of, and writes the words for, my favourite band The Handsome Family. Wilderness is an amazing transcendent book of essays about the infinite weirdness of the natural world of which we form such a clumsy part. Everyone should read it. You can get a Kindle download from Amazon and you can order the book itself from the Handsome Family website. It accompanies their latest CD, also called Wilderness, and everyone should get that too.

I was reading about how Rennie Sparks saw a crow flying and she thought that it was a hole in the sky, it was so black. She draws attention to the fact that the collective noun for crows is ‘murder’: a murder of crows. She writes about the cawing of the crows and how they gather in the trees to witness some crow drama as if for a ritual execution.

Engrossed as I was, it was gradually borne in on me that outside my window was just such a cawing, and when I went to look I saw just such a drama.

I should explain that we are living temporarily in a flat in a Victorian school building that education has abandoned. The conversion is complete but some of the flats are still unlet, and the whole building has yet to settle down to its new identity. Outside our window is the former playground. It is now a car park for the tenants. The development is aimed (obviously not exclusively) at the aspirational young and the car park is dotted with Audis and BMWs. At the far end of the space are the enormous plane trees of which I wrote last time. Maybe they were planted in the Nineteenth Century to imbue a sense of the grandeur of nature into the heads of the pupils, and just allowed to get on with it. In any case they are magnificently out of scale and the wind moves constantly in their branches which, come to think of it, is probably what reminds me of the seaside, resembling as it does the sound of the sea a few blocks of villas and an esplanade away.

If you were fanciful you might imagine hearing in their former playground the ghostly cries of children long dead or lost to adulthood.

It was the playground and the plane trees that were the setting for the drama. There were four main players, one of them dead.

In the foreground was a dog fox. In his mouth was a crow. It appeared to be fully grown. For that reason, and also because it appeared to be lifeless, this was not a case of attempted rescue.

Beyond, in the plane trees were two magnificent and very much alive crows. It was they who were making the noise. One after the other they flew down from the plane trees, flapping their wings over the head of the fox and screaming. The principal attitude of the fox was embarrassment – he was after all only doing what foxes are supposed to do – and irritation that having been clever enough to catch the bird he was now being frustrated in his natural desire to do unspeakable things to its corpse and then eat it. He let the body drop from his mouth, though keeping it securely between his legs, and stared malevolently at his tormentors.

It was stalemate and the crows raised the stakes. For the next few sallies they flew lower, actually scoring the fox’s head with their claws and drawing blood. The fox sought security in the lee of an Audi. The crows flew down from their perches in the plane trees at opposite ends of the car park and took up aggressive forward positions side by side on top of a BMW only a regulation parking space away from the Audi. From there they descended on him in turn, inflicting their injuries and then flapping vertically up to avoid smashing their bodies against the Audi.

The fox broke cover. He set off across the car park with the dead bird in his mouth. It was not the arrogant gait to which, as a fox, he was no doubt accustomed, but it was nevertheless clear that he had not forgotten that an arrogant gait would have been expected of him had the circumstances been less unusual. Three or four corvine blows to his back later he had attained the relative safety of the undergrowth around the largest of the plane trees.

Again he took stock. At last admitting defeat, he deposited the bird ruefully on the ground and trotted off with some dignity across the car park again. If he thought that that would be an end to things he was wrong. It had never been about rescue; now it was about revenge. The two crows hurled themselves repeatedly at him. He finally panicked and fled. They pursued him down the street and in the end could no longer be heard.

All dramas need a conclusion, the minor character who draws a moral or buries the dead. An aspirational tenant, who had been on her way to the communal rubbish bins with two bags differently denominated, had stopped to watch the end of the action, as I had from my window. She walked across the empty stage and inspected the Audi for claw marks and a possible insurance claim. She drew her conclusions – I cannot tell you what – and slowly walked off.

Under the Ground

I will not disguise that it all started with a dream.

In this dream I was walking through the land where I live or at least, which is different, the land where it appeared that I lived, and someone explained that just below the surface of the ground there were dead people.

In my dream I immediately thought of the Handsome Family and their song about the singing bones beneath our feet. When I woke up, though, I forgot all about the Handsome Family and their song. That particular thought only came back to me much later.

When I woke up and went out I inspected the land and I saw the places where the dead people were said to be. I noticed that whilst in my dream people had brought the location of the dead people to my attention, in my waking state there appeared to be no recognition from anyone else that they were there at all.

I explained all this to my companion in this vale of tears.

We have to find out if they’re there and if so where, I said.

Why? shouted my companion in this vale of tears, who was truculent through drink.

How? she added, a little more quietly.

I believe, I said, that there are tapers that you can sink into the ground and if there are human remains beneath they change colour: red for human remains, green for no human remains – the opposite of traffic lights.

Tapirs are pigs, she said. Do they root the human remains out like truffles?

Not pigs, I said. ‘Tapers’ not ‘tapirs’. ‘Taper’ is probably the wrong word but these things are like those you might light your pipe with, though much bigger. You fit them into the ground and as I say they may or may not change colour.

Spills, said my companion in this vale of tears, which I ignored.

To work, I said, and set out on an expedition to buy the tapers.

Where do you buy an implement that indicates the presence beneath the ground of human remains? They looked uncomprehendingly at me in the local hardware shop and in the specialist building supplies place there was a lot of talk but no tapers; indeed I am not sure that they knew what I was talking about either.

Or maybe, it occurred to me later, they were seizing whatever pretext was available to avoid dealing with me.

In the end I made for John Lewis. It should have been my first choice.

One of the constants in life is that the best things are unclassifiable. Take the Handsome Family again. Are they Folk, Rock or Country, or any of those with ‘Alt-‘ as a prefix? None or all: they are ‘If you require assistance please do not hesitate to ask’ – or they would have been in the days when there were record stores and assistants who were not serving out their redundancy notices and staring suicidally into the middle distance.

It was the same in the days when I required CDs of the music of Cap Breton. Sometimes the assistants got animated when they finally tracked the music down under ‘World Music: Europe, France’.

Dunderheads, they would exclaim, with a conspiratorial wink.

And so in John Lewis I sought out an assistant.

I need a taper that indicates human remains, I said, or rather a set of them.

A set of tapers, I explained with a smile; not human remains.

Certainly, sir, he said, naming a location within the store.

He must have phoned through because they were waiting for me. A nice middle-aged man explained to me at some length the range available. The more expensive ones promised one hundred per cent reliability, and had an elegance lacking in the cheaper ones. As he chattered on I noticed that we had been joined by another man, also in John Lewis livery but with a badge suggesting that organisation’s officer class.

Might I have a word with you, sir? he said. In private?

He put an arm around my shoulder and we walked to the window. I could tell at once that here was a man who was going out on a limb for me, motivated by nothing but pure fellow feeling.

Is this purchase wise sir? he said.

I am afraid that I jabbered. I told him that there were bodies beneath us and how essential it was that people recognised that fact.

For all I know they have names, I said.

Indeed, sir, but – how can I put this? – is it wise that you, sir, should be doing this?

As he said this, a great slab of the dream came back to me. I thought I’d remembered it all but maybe the most important bit was only now returning. As it did my dream turned in retrospect into a nightmare.

They thought that I had killed them. I’d forgotten that.

Good lord, I said. I see what you mean.

Bears thinking about carefully, he said. Doing myself out of a sale!

Thank you, I said, and left the shop, more confused than I can say. Both men seemed relieved to see me go.

There were I realised only three options.

I could abandon the matter altogether. That was the sensible course. The man at John Lewis had indicated that without equivocation. But could I live with myself if I did? What quality would the remainder of my days on Earth have if I did that?

I could do what any politician would and organise an enquiry. I could revisit the dream. Kefir was always a reliable tool for that. But I knew in my heart what the dream had been; there was nothing to be gained from equivocation.

And so it was that I took the third option. It was a week or so later and I am glad to record that my companion in this vale of tears was at my side. In the small hours of a moonless night we planted the tapers (I bought the expensive ones in the end) and then we stood back and activated them. Across the baleful landscape they glowed, softly at first and green, then changing, most of them, gradually to red.

I awaited what would come with whatever reserves of courage remained to me.