41 Dog and the squirrel
It was back in the 70s. I was camping with dog in the New Forest. It was out of season, so the camp-sites were sparsely occupied.
My tent had a self-contained sleeping section, called Ernest, which I suspended within. The other end of my shelter was neatly laid out. I'd made a chair and table out of sticks and bark twine. I had a radio; there was a football match I couldn't miss.
Dog was a lady, black and white border collie. They say that the I.Q. of this breed lies amongst the cats; above and below the dogs and the apes on the perceived-intelligence graph. Dog was intelligent and I'd never known her otherwise since she was six weeks old. Always attentive and eager; knew what it was all about before she ever saw a sheep. I'd carve a notch on a twig and throw it into a woodpile. There it was, back at my feet before I'd walked thirty yards. Dog looking up, tongue lolling, one paw raised twitching, urging me to chuck it again. Not for her pleasure of course, oh no, she was earning her keep. The pleasure was all mine.
Dog was alert to most things, but, being shorter than me, couldn't see over the long grass and hillocks. So I'd warn her when there was a herd of New Forest ponies grazing ahead. Dog's focus would change. We'd circumvent the ponies, who shifted their stance but lifted only their eyes, in order to watch the wolf go by. A slow dance of primitive understanding. Once we had passed, dog relaxed and chased the delights which, her nose advised her, were just along the way.
After our morning walk, we'd drive into Fordingbridge, buy a newspaper and something for dinner. We liked venison sausages. Back at the ranch, as I would call it, I cooked food, we'd eat and then have a quiet spell. Siesta.
Next the crossword puzzle, with tea and biscuits of course. Dog and I had a similar taste in biscuits. Ginger nuts being our favourite.
After tea, in the early evening, on the first day, we went for a walk in the forest. The late sun angled down in shredded beams, not misty, like the mornings, but hazy all the same. We followed tracks through the deep fern and, after twenty minutes or so, found a lane. Wood smoke enticed us round the bend and we came upon a pub, set in the trees.
Seemingly unchanged over the centuries, the Foresters Inn beckoned. The landlady welcomed us with a smile and a drink. "What a lovely doggie" she fussed, and put down some water. I took my light and bitter to a table by the fire. It was early July and the logs flickered lazily. Three old boys were playing dominoes and dog settled under my chair, chin across paws.
We said goodbye and left around ten o'clock, retracing our steps back to the camp. Dog trotted ahead and, mildly aglow, I followed. The white tip of her tail a disembodied beacon, flittering in the gloaming. A mug of tea, a biscuit and glorious bed.
There's nothing like being in a tent. You see nothing and hear everything. The creatures of the night snuffle and hoot, but there's no threat; so we embrace Morpheus in our one man, one dog, Ernest.
We drifted into an easy routine: get up, ablute, eat and go for a walk. Our evening visits to the 'Foresters' became an easy habit . I took to playing dominoes and, therefore, leaving a little later and taking a few steps more than necessary. Dog didn't mind. She had become quite a star in the pub; graduating from a nightly bag of crisps to a steak and kidney pie, lovingly presented in a dish by the landlady. "Who's a lovely doggie then" she'd inquire blissfully, and somewhat rhetorically I might add. No,... dog didn't mind at all.
Maybe a week had gone by when, in the depths of the night, all hell broke loose. Dog didn't bark, it wasn't her way, but her paw was on my chest. She shushed me and said "we've got a problem". I swung round in my sleeping bag and, lying prone, got hold of Ernest's zipper. Raising it ten inches, I stuck my head through the gap, which widened instantly as dog's face joined me. Her quivering whiskers in my eyes and nose, and a strangled growl in my right ear.
There, in the dim light, not two feet away, stood a squirrel. Panting, hands on hips, glaring at the biscuit tin, which it had somehow managed to knock on the floor. Dog was apoplectic. I could barely suppress my laughter. The squirrel renewed it's attack on the tin, which was quite large, round and airtight. The tactics were something to behold. After a futile period of scrabbling at the lid, whilst standing on it, he hopped off and, unbelievably, managed to get some leverage under the tin with his paws, and proceeded to hurl the darned thing against the table made of sticks. This presented a solid barrier as I'd firmly embedded the legs into the ground. On the third attempt, the lid came off and the contents burst all over the ground.
This was too much for dog. Normally so self-disciplined; the sight of her, our, ginger nuts being looted, unhinged her. With an almighty wwerrraaarrrggghhh She exploded through the zipper. Fangs bared, she went for the squirrel. What followed can only be described as a furry tornado. Dog had missed squirrel. Squirrel went up the canvas, chased by dog. Round and round they went, dog snarling and snapping, squirrel nonchalantly picking up biscuits and stuffing them into secret places, which looked like his waistcoat pockets, although I can't be certain in the blur of it all. After seven or eight laps of the living area, squirrel made a dash for it. Out the door, across the grass and up the tree. Dog followed in hot pursuit. Out the door, across the grass and up the tree.
Dogs can't climb trees. She picked herself up and looked at me. "WELL? WHAT ARE YOU STANDING THERE FOR? GET UP THAT TREE!" I couldn't stand; whimpering with hopeless laughter, I couldn't even speak.
Dog commenced a determined watch around the tree, looking up into the branches. Half an hour went by and I was reasonably composed. "Come on girl. Squirrel is long gone. This is a forest you know. He's away in the canopy, probably in the next county by now, after the fright you gave him".
Dog looked at me with contempt, and said in a measured tone, as if talking to a child, "what goes up, must come down; Newton's law of something or other, go to bed, I'll do what has to be done". She went back on patrol and before I fell asleep she had the tree entirely surrounded.
I awoke early and crawled out of my sleeping bag. The detritus from the night's excitement littered the floor. I stretched and looked out to see Dog lying on the ground, one sleepy eye rolling in her head but generally aimed upwards. I gave her some water and she gave me a wag. Just one. I tried to encourage her away from the tree but she wouldn't budge. I went for the morning walk, alone; it wasn't the same so I cut it short and drove into town.
The butcher asked about Dog, so I told him what had happened and we had a good snigger. She was still in position when I got back and the day degenerated into a miserable torpor. I tried to explain things from my perspective. 'Humans' I said patiently, 'know some things that dogs can't possibly understand' but she just looked at me as if I was mad. This was obviously a matter of high principle to her, and I could laugh it off if I so chose, however she had a reputation to uphold and squirrel was not going to get away with it. No sir.
I was fed up by the evening. 'Come on girl, let's go to the pub, forget about it, nice steak pie, think about that'. Nothing. So I set off alone.
'Where's doggie then?'....and I went through the story again, for the enlightenment of the whole room, all six of them. 'Bless her' said the landlady, pulling a generous half and opening a bottle of light ale, 'it's in her blood you know' she mused wisely. I joined the gang and played dominoes until closing time.
The fresh air hit me as I strolled off into the night, slightly fuzzy but looking forward to seeing Dog. 'Stupid dog' I grinned, comfortable with my superiority, 'now, where's that track? Ah, here it is.' I plunged into the Stygian jungle. Well it seemed rather more like a jungle tonight than the forest I knew so well, but I followed the path confidently. 'I'll be home in twenty minutes' I thought. 'Hang on, how long have I been walking? I should be almost there by now.'
The path seemed to divide, although I could barely make out the terrain, just different shades of black. How many crossed trails had I negotiated? It was hard to tell, and the first hint of self-doubt meandered into my hazy mind.
'Stupid dog' I cursed; remembering slowly that she normally followed her nose and led me home, and that I'd got into the habit of faithfully dogging the little white thing that was the end of her tail. I carried on walking, 'it must be round here somewhere, mustn't it.'
After an hour or so, I came to the conclusion that I was hopelessly lost. I could be walking in any direction, there was no way of knowing. I thought, if I could find the road.but where was it? It might be anywhere. I roamed around all night. The effects of the alcohol wore off, leaving me dehydrated and dispirited, so to speak.
Not long after first light I found the road. I was three miles or more from the Foresters Arms, but after that it was relatively easy to find the camp-site. The tree was unattended and, as I crawled wearily into bed, Dog looked up from her blanket, said 'what time do you call this then?' and promptly went back to sleep. 'Stupid dog' I yawned. 'Hmm' she snored.
© Ian Gillan 1998
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