So much has happened throughout the world, so many lives have changed irrevocably, in the week since this strange picture was taken on a quiet, sunny morning in the north east, despite the rain and cloud covering so much of the rest of the country. Uncle Jonny told us about what happened during the total solar eclipse of 1999, when there was darkness mid-morning across the south of England, dusk came early and the birds were silenced by the wonders of the cosmos. But this time, though we waited patiently for a wonder – my first eclipse experience – it turned out to be only partial indeed: so fleeting an alteration to normality that we were pressed to countenance it. At the moment of maximum effect for us, the Rolling Stones were beginning ‘Gimme Shelter’ on Radio 4, which always creates a tingly mood, and as the sun moved up further in its daily arc, this strange image was captured on the camera. There was a gentle quietening about the bird feeder, and a feeling of the afternoon among us, but all too soon the blazing light resumed and went upon its way. Here below, we picked up our routines – resuming my sleep at Kemo Sabe’s feet, tiny Nico on Uncle NuNu’s tummy, Jeoffry hugging Barnaby’s side. ‘Oh, a storm is threatening my very life today’.
Now it’s candle-light, and I’m glad to say that a dragged-out Kemo Sabe is finally resting up beside us all, even the endearing Boy Named Jo who now lives downstairs. My, is she bush-whacked, achey and weak, especially in her poor hands; enough to make me cry. Kemo Sabe has certainly had an heroic week, and had to hang on in there much longer than she’d planned, as the construction of our beautiful new bunkhouse was real strenuous, that’s for sure. It took much much longer than even a real smart small spaniel like me ever expected, no matter what the boys might say, and a whole lot of nip and tuck was involved to get it all dandy-like. Newman watched from the window; Barnaby blamed the plans but I hung about helpfully, ferrying call-outs for hot drinks and heave-hos from Eats No Vegetables: I was always around. We told the other boys how we were getting on, night after night as we sat around the campfire, warming our mitts: they heard tell how she cut them logs herself, rolled them down the river and then cleaved them in two with that great big saw, then getting the whole darn thing to work as one. Lord, there was cussing and fighting when planks didn’t fit so well, but she’s as great a tailor as she is a faithful scout and one way and another it all looks dandy now, waiting for another coat of paint or two and a bit more studleying-up. From inside, where it’s warm, dry and insulated, comes the fragrance of coffee waiting for us cold and hungry wranglers; think I’ll take mine on my bunk, after that bowl of bacon and beans. Come on in, Berry; this is a fun place to shelter after a hard day’s graft.
This last few days we have each had some carefully cut coins of sausage with our jellies and mixer: a delicious treat and a very rare occurrence, it has to be noted. Yes, I know! Sausages – even the best as are these – aren’t that nutritionally sound and moreover they have to be cooked but I think a great many dogs would readily agree that they are completely and utterly delicious. In fact they are so delicious that they have an incandescent quality about them which brings a broad grin to the face of any dog lucky enough to be getting any. Uncle Jonny particularly liked the fact that when staying away in an hotel a whole sausage would be smuggled back to the bedroom in a napkin, and doled out to him in bite-sized pieces. I too have now experienced the joy of this heavenly wait, confident that there will be enough sausage to go round the three of us. For years, Uncle Jonny’s gastric problems were addressed by ready-grilled sausages, which seemed to agree with him no end; special Tupperware containers sat in the fridge with the grilled snorkers lined up temptingly, some cut up ready for scattering over the cruckles. The sausage, moreover, has a primal function in the relationship of dog to mankind, as every dog learns as he grows up and as science has now demonstrated. I heard it from Uncle Jonny, and he from Uncle Willie who in turn learnt it from the Great Noggs himself. The story goes like this:
Once upon a time, a very very long time ago, a pack of hungry wolves clung together forlornly on a shivering hillside while the winter wind blew their fur close to their skinny sides. It was a truly terrible time, the bitterest night of the winter. For days the wolves had hunted in vain for a fat rabbit or a slow raccoon but there was nothing to be found, even after hours and hours of fruitless tracking in the snow. Seeing a glow growing brighter and thinking the sun might be rising at last, the wolves looked down on to what they soon made out to be a gathering fire, around which was huddled a group of human beings – their bitterest enemies in the battle for life. They had never edged so close to people before but the most mouth-watering smells began wafting up from the fire, so appetising and savoury that the hungriest wolf couldn’t help howling out loud, throwing his head back as the pain in his stomach gripped tighter. To the wolves’ surprise the men didn’t run away. Instead one of them threw a piece of cooked meat over in their direction, making encouraging noises. ‘If we take that food, we will for ever lose our independence,’ warned the wildest of the wolves. ‘The freedom of the plains; the right to forge our own destiny; to feast when we have plenty and the dignity of starving when we cannot find anything to eat. If you approach those people and take what they offer you, you will become their creatures, never knowing hunger but forever dependent.’ The others looked confused. This was deep stuff. However, hardly pausing for a moment more, as one they left the true wolf howling on the frozen hillside, and trotted daintily and meekly into the presence of a warm and welcoming meal, and the arms of those who had provided it.
And that, dear readers, is the story of the sausage. And the beginning of the story of the dog.
This is a special day! Although you all have been living through several such days over the last decade, where the odd-numbered day, month and year go up in a neat progression, there won’t be another one along for a while: this precise mathematical pattern won’t be possible again until the first of March 2105. Will there be any Dickens Dogs around then, I wonder? It is also special because the sun is everywhere and the sky is beautifully blue; it couldn’t be further from how Thomas Hood sees this month in his famous and funny little poem. Up on next door’s chimney breast, where our beloved big herring gulls breed every year, George (one of the twins born to them this season) has returned like a good son, to see his parents. He and his sister regularly land up there and whinny for a bite to eat, meeting up with one or other of the adults who gives them a talking to and then sends them back into the world to get on with it. Over the years of getting to know these generally rather despised gulls, we have come to respect them. They have been building nests on next door’s roof for years, and we’ve watched their every move: first, as they prepared to lay in the newly constructed and rather uncomfortable-looking nest, then as they cared tirelessly for their hatchlings week after week – for far longer than other birds, or so it seems – guarding them as they change from fluffy large bundles into mysteriously feathered creatures; finally guiding them through the tortuous process of learning to fly, for which the babies are most unenthusiastic. Although this year’s twins are quite grown up now and have probably done all their seabird exams, they still love to return. The bond between the generations is delightful and terribly endearing. Swans we are used to seeing in their nuclear family on the mere not far from the dunes; but gulls? Aren’t they ugly, gluttonous, greedy horrors, ready to peck the sandwiches and chips from your hand? We like their little kneecaps, their beady eyes, their striking plumage, their courage over the water and, most of all, their capacity to show enduring affection for their parents and the security of the home where they first saw the sun: up there, looking down on us, looking out at the islands and the wild ocean they must eventually learn to make their own. Thank you for coming back!
. . . the next Big Day is almost upon us, as today’s picture suggests! We love spiders and have a couple of really large black ones in the front room: one lives behind the bookcase and comes out to check the fire occasionally; the other’s home is the waste paper basket, where it lives in peace. Every now and again we see these members of the household, poottling about when their fancies take them – despite our fondness for them, it’s always a bit alarming, though, when they spring into our world. This purple species, seen here embracing dear and very patient Barnaby, is of course just a silly one – part of the Hallowe’en-iana, now down from the loft, with which we’re decorating the place. We hope the real spiders feel at home and enjoy the fun as much as we will. Newman’s role is at the front door to greet the Trick or Treaters when they call by; they know we are expecting them because the terracota pumpkin outside will be alight with candles and across the windows pumpkins and cobwebs aplenty will be flickering in anticipation. Newman’s good at excitement and seeming rather frightening, because he is big and bouncy and driven mad by the smell of the sweets (or indeed anything remotely edible), though everyone who calls here knows he’s as harmless and sweet as Bobo near whom I sleep and around whom Newman wraps. From what I hear, most cultures and their religions find expression for the ideas behind this festival in their folklore and practices; for a little spaniel like me the numinous is very real and, as one who is afraid of very little but looks for the meaning in everything, I embrace tomorrow’s fun, so long as it is gentle and silly: let the more plangent possibilities speak for themselves, I say! Uncle Jonny shows us that the veil between this world and the next is thin anyway, and even more than usual at this time of year, standing as we do upon the threshold of life and death, summer and autumn, wondering what to do for the best. Newman and Jonny told me about the time in Nunhead Cemetery when they were looking at the primroses flowering in December and approaching footsteps on the gravel were distinctly heard by them all when nobody was there. Nobody else at all: just the distinct sound of someone being there. Newman himself often saw beings unseen to others and wouldn’t walk up paths, stopping resolutely and digging in his paws. Nunhead is a beautiful Victorian place and the boys went there everyday without fail; there was nothing horrid about it, nothing at all, but it still held secrets among its quarter of a million buried souls, including a mysterious old man in an outdated pin-striped suit with distinctive buttonholes, who was one minute scrutinising an abandoned grave and the next gone without trace. Outside on Jonny’s grave the flowers are dying at last – something which makes perfect sense. From beneath what remains of them, however, reaches up a real presence whose power is funny, wise and strong, though dead two years. Glee made a living thing!
This has been a day of enormous dread: an unaccountable disappearance. How can cats bear to be alone so long? Hours have gone by since I saw him last, when I was dozing through the night and he disappeared through the catflap I also use. All prayers and ploys having come to nought, in the late afternoon I was summarily sent by no means seriously into the garden to find him, which being an obedient spaniel I promptly did. He walked into the kitchen literally as the first missing cat flyer came out of the printer. I followed him in and there were celebrations of a feasting kind, first for Jeoffry who had lamb and vegetables, then for everyone else – relief all round.
Jeoffry isn’t about this morning. Like us, he always wants his breakfast but today none of us has seen him. It is surprising how quickly one knows as if by some special sense that something is wrong, something not quite right about the cat’s routines – or rather the change in them. Jeoffry was born here on the Northumberland coast the day before the towers came down and now lives here again, after a lifetime in London. He may have passed Jonny, who knows and sees everything, on his way to have fun, or he may have joined Jonny. Alarming for us all.