This Saturday evening, as she does from time to time, Hamlette came to stay the night. Her owners, our friends Paul and Jill, had decided spontaneously to celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary in nearby Martel. Hamlette, as you can probably deduce, is a kind of accident of birth. In other words, Hamlet became Hamlette when he became a she. I said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side…
In fact, the walks are the worst of it – for reasons that will become clear. In all other respects, Hamlette is welcome in our home. Even Myrtle doesn’t mind her. Myrtle was once chased up the flue of our wood-burning stove by a black dog that bounded into the house and created consternation. I had to go up to the mezzanine, lean over the wooden handrail and gently remove the terrified cat from her perch. Ever since, black dogs represent the work of the devil. But Hamlette is a Golden Retriever and tan dogs, like our Alf, are good dogs.
We like to think that Alf and Hamlette are friends. We also like to think that, by telling him a few times in advance that ‘Hamlette’s coming to stay’, our dog will keenly anticipate her arrival. Just for a few hours, maybe, it will give him something other than his daily two meals and two walks to look forward to. Actually, their behaviour suggests little more than a familiar indifference. They acknowledge each other and one will follow the other into the house for a quick guided tour, but there’s none of the hysteria that occurs when my friend, Adrian the tree surgeon, drops by with his faithful dish-mop dog, Polly.
It’s only when you take the two tan dogs out together for a walk that you realise why. Sex. Pure and simple. Even humans find that that sexual attraction can compromise a friendship. The strange thing is, though, Alf (pictured wtih Daisy) was genetically modified at something like four months old. The operation occasioned one of only two times in his otherwise happy life when he has had to wear the cone of shame. It wouldn’t have been quite so degrading for him had we lived here on ‘the dog’s meadow’ (as our daughter christened our plot of land), with only the cats to witness the inverted plastic light shade he had to wear for almost a fortnight. But we lived in a village at the time and it destroyed his social credibility overnight. He had a kind of friendship, about which we weren’t really happy, with the volatile Alsatian that ruled the neighbourhood, but Argo afterwards spurned him like an untouchable.
So what I’m driving at is: Alf has been denied the pleasures of the flesh. Unlike the randy little Jack Russell at the nearby farm, who wanders off for days at a stretch in search of hot female bottoms, Alf has never known a) what it’s like to sow his wild oats and b) how to do it. We tell horrified, disbelieving locals that he has led a more contented life as a neuter.
And yet… when you take the two of them out on a walk together, you realise just how indelible that genetic imprint is. At first they trot along side by side by Sondheim and you think, Ah don’t they look sweet together. But every few yards he’ll stop to demonstrate his ardour for Hamlette (if you catch my drift). Her back legs are getting rather arthritic now and the bounce in her step is no longer so pronounced, but she still has a an IQ that’s as pleasingly low as that of a chaffinch and she must come across to our Alf as the canine version of Jayne Mansfield (may God rest her unfortunate soul).
Happily, the longer Hamlette stays here, the less urgent becomes Alf’s need to do the hokey-cokey. However, on Saturday evening, it was apparent that they haven’t seen each other all winter long. It’s not Hamlette that minds. She just patiently and uncomplainingly lets her tan companion go through his cack-handed manoeuvres. No, the discomfort is more the dog-walkers’. I take pride in the fact that Alf doesn’t need a lead, that he sits quietly by the side of the road when a car passes and that he does his business discreetly off-piste. It’s shameful and mortifying to witness our good boy air-humping Hamlette.
And to see the way that Hamlette lies back compliantly and thinks of Pedigree Chum reminds me uncomfortably of the indignities that women the world over must go through in the name of testosterone. ‘Down boy!’ I tell him. ‘It’s just not nice. Dogs of your schooling don’t do that sort of thing.’
Hamlette went home this morning, when Paul and Jill dropped by after their 19th anniversary adventure to find all three of us still in our nightclothes, lingering as ever over our traditional Sunday morning breakfast. More shame. I had intended to take the dogs out before breakfast, but couldn’t bear the thought of all that embarrassing hello-folks-and-what-about-the-workers business. Maybe by the next time that Hamlette comes to stay, Alf will be that much older and wiser. Mind you, remembering the way that my 94-year old grandfather used to embrace my wife, nothing is guaranteed.