The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
Some shop customers here in Oxford may have noted that the Beatnik did have a guard dog for a few weeks. Woof, woof. He didn’t care for some customers too much which was fine by me as I am rather negligent in that regard myself, but he was at all times very gentle. If a touch too smelly, he was an affectionate and highly successful mobile logo, splayed haphazardly and modestly all over the floor, rear legs asunder with logo on display, and occasionally he ricochetted round the shop (he was rather lolloping and charmingly clumsy). But one vital thing to report: it took some time before I got to know his name.
You see he came as part of a package and my priorities had been misled by size: I had been charged for a fortnight to curate a huge house with four tenants and eight empty bedrooms, and I thought the dog was just tacked on, for even if several hands tall he was nowhere near as huge as the house, and he didn’t need a key, had no heating application to turn on or off, he required no bins to be put out on a Thursday, and no careful rearrangement of the cruet set so as not to annoy the rather fierce tenant in residence over Easter who was, it must be said, a bit of a nag, proof that if a nuclear bomb was ever dropped and civilization stopped it would be more than rats and Kanye West that would live on, yes, long live henpecking. So huge was the house (and my domestic responsibility within it) that it required an oxygen mask and a team of Sherpas to climb to the top floor, and then the bloody Sherpas would need to be fed.
Soon it became apparent that the house, at worst, needed only a hoover once a week and as a bloke it was very easy not to care for that. However the dog needed numerous walks and all sorts of administrative wake that included a protracted search for its lead and poop bags, a good deal of fuss, care and attention, and a can of food three times each day (I learnt very quickly that I couldn’t smell the difference blindfold between its food and its biological jottings). To be placed in charge of such a pollutant E-type retriever, with four pistons, a front fender and spare tyre, was not just demanding to begin with, but forbidding. He slobbered profusely, had a clumsy gait and an appetite for reclining dubiously wherever (and asunder); if these are weaknesses then after time they are terms of endearment also, and, of course, soon I fell in love with these doggy traits. At this point the doggie moves from the peripheral to the pivotal. It is indeed true that size doesn’t matter: the huge house can burn down (it resembles the boarding house in Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means in any case) but the not so huge dog has stolen my heart. He licks my shoelaces all through our first night together and takes me for a lengthy walk twice the next day, so I think we have more than bonded post-haste.
However lovely and emotionally stable he may have been when we met first, the doggie at this point has an urgent and exponential need for an identity, and this becomes a paramount pillar of our relationship. A pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and as I took on the mantle of Moses, the look on the doggie’s whiskered face as presented to me was the expression of a need that then coursed through his whole body; his body resembled the Whispering Gallery at St Paul’s as his need for a name echoed like a Chinese whisper down his back to find release in the profuse wag of his tail, which wagged and wagged whilst I tried to ransack my memory to retrieve his name. Silence reigned and my heart stopped as his wagging gaze moved from the expectant to the tragic. This dog was in chaos, was developing an identity crisis before my eyes as my faulty memory pirouetted centre stage like Nureyev on speed: I had been irresponsible enough to not take note of this doggie’s name, for I was excited yet heedless in the melee of my listening (as in not listening) to my housekeeping instructions. I just had no idea what he was called.
At the point of house handover, I had made myself intimate with the Oxford Council waste collection itinerary (a wonderful brochure for which they must be applauded, shame they tip all the recyclable stuff in landfill and a shame its only premise is to make money elsewhere); I had investigated the myriad trip switches in the fuse boxes and negotiated the hinges that opened the fridge door (a huge beast that resembled the door of the Divinity School); I mapped out its passageways, cul-de-sacs, choreographed in my mind how to watch the television, cook my potato fritters and run a bath simultaneously; I swaggered through the house full of my own forthcoming grandeur with no thought of this poor doggie’s identity. This house was my new stomping ground, and as I beat its grounds like an eighteenth century country squire, and we – that is, doggie owner and me – discussed the trivia of political life at Lady Margaret Hall, how very fine the gardens are there, how unsuitable the huge garden was when used as a supposedly claustrophobic set for Macbeth the other Summer, the doggie’s owner probably slipped in the doggie’s name several times, specked like conversational cloves in an apple pie. But I was slipshod, and for sure doggie’s name was mentioned but, as if white noise in a snowstorm, I just didn’t hear it. Moreover he – most definitely a he, as am boastfully an expert on such matters of phallic community – the doggie it was who had no name tag! And so it was that each time in my first week’s stay in the house that I climbed the stairs (stairs littered with the skeletons of those who over the years had never made it to the lavatorial house summit), I recited lists of dog’s names each step to see if I could remember his. Alas no memory was disturbed and no name was forthcoming.
I should add here that I have a disastrous history of housesitting – failing to water pot plants, starving orchids (they don’t need much in the way of comfort so no easy boast), leaving fish in a fridge for weeks on end til the fridge rattled, corrupting sourdough, leaving stains on sofas, that sort of thing. But to add to this litany of disaster I found here that I was in danger of passing on a serious personality disorder to a dog, for all dogs need an identity and I had failed to give this one even a name. His owners were away on holiday, and I was rather too shamefaced to disturb them with such embarrassing kerfuffle. So the question What-The-F*@k-Should-I-Call-Him-For-The-Next-Fortnight loomed. Some wag suggested I ask the neighbours, but this was Summertown, the home of mock Corinthian pillars and garden gnomes, all Edward Hopper and angst, nobody talks to neighbours there. Well intentioned she was, but an erstwhile mainstay of the shop suggested it was all in the tone and not the phonetics or the nomenclature, and that I should have called the mutt something I love: Loose Leaf Tea, Oscar Peterson or, as the ultimate failsafe, Willie Nelson. (The last a risible thought, for confessing to a liking for Willie Nelson in Oxford is like admittance of climate change denial, voting UKIP, or thinking LGBT is a lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato sandwich. I just couldn’t do that, sorry.) A Facebook appeal for clues helped me locate a friendly foe who knew the supremely bodacious doggie and a name was provided, eventually.
Arthur it was. And a jolly good name for a bookstore doggie, hope you agree. I became very quickly his Guinevere, was told to shape up. (I did indeed shape up: mantra-like I called for Lancelot a lot in the night, chased after sticks in the fields, rang friends so that I could pant down the phone.)
We had good times, we had a few bad times, me and Arthur, but his stay was rather kushti. I am still to forgive him that he did not savage the security guard who accosted us in the Hale Leys Shopping Arcade in Aylesbury, an officious jumped up wannabe Hitler with acne and, I daresay, a Golden Host Certificate at Trust House Forte: he interrogated us about the signs at the entrance banning dogs from entry, as if Arthur could read them, just preposterous! I did at the time question Arthur’s need to fart whilst lounging on my bed overnight, but I take it now to be his means of his reaching out to me, and he didn’t seem to mind so why should I. And I remain unsure why he licked his bollocks outrageously as I had my one and only guest over for food, but she was clearly used to such male flights of indulgence (am pleased to say). But above all other memory, the most precious is that Arthur loved to be tickled, best on his back, serenely spatchcocked and splendid, his eager cross-hatched frame responding to my fingertips like nuts and bolts to a spanner.
Arthur ambled careless and carefree like a ramshackle colossus through my world for two weeks only. And since he’s gone, well, it ain’t the same. It just ain’t the same.