At an unspecified time, some months ago, when fair England was in the height of 2009's balmy summer, one of my partner's colleagues spotted that a large white, sealed, bucket had been dumped at one of the countryside sites. It was left there, in case the original owner returned, and was swiftly forgotten about as the long hot days passed, other more pressing concerns succeeding the matter of a discarded plastic bucket, and scrub growth proceeded on its natural course and grew over the tub.
Seasons changed; the new year began - the snow fell, and more time passed. As the snow melted to reveal the plastic bucket once more, denuded of the scrub that had perished over the winter, another of my partner's colleagues retrieved the said container, put it into the work vehicle and transferred it to the workshop, which sits next to my partner's office, and the large, lidded, tub was forgotten once more.
Until two days ago, that is. One of the ranger team decided to give the workshop a bit of a tidy-up. It was a sunny, spring-like day, and the large double doors that formed one end of the workshop were open. Ewan, Fizzy and I were happily idling about peacefully, supervising the young ranger in his work and joining in as he whistled along to tunes on the radio. Towards the end of his labours, the ranger spotted the still-sealed big white bucket.
"A-ha!" he thought to himself (as I was later told), "That bucket will come in handy for storing sheep feed [for the winter, when less grass is available to nibble]. I will prise it open and wash it out." For 'twas a mighty bucket, easily capable of holding around 5kg of "sheep nuts" or the "hi-energy beet-lick" pellets that my cloven-hoofed colleagues love so much. The long-untroubled bucket was retrieved from its corner and duly prised open with a screwdriver by the unsuspecting young ranger.
It is hard to describe with precision the ensuing few seconds. At the instant the bucket was opened, the foulest stench imaginable filled the workshop. It hit our noses with all the subtlety of a speeding freight train striking a tiny, fragile, newly-hatched ant.
The ranger began instantly to retch and stumbled to the fresh air of the work-yard. Ewan, Fizzy and I fled, yelping and squealing, into the neighbouring woodland.
The bucket contained old fishing tackle, a quantity of VERY dead fish, and some even-deader maggots (fish-bait). All of this had lain untroubled, from approximately May 2009 until the moment the tub was unsealed. Oh yes.
When we ourselves had calmed down somewhat, it took Fizzy and I a further fifteen minutes to locate Ewan. We found him, shivering and whining, underneath a large holly bush. It was too prickly for us to creep in to retrieve the poor fellow, so we had to try and get him to crawl out by himself. Ultimately, Fizzy managed to coax him out by telling him that she'd procure him some cheese at home, later in the evening. (Ewan is somewhat unnaturally obsessed with cheese). The traumatised dog shuffled out from under the bush and Fizzy helped me to pick the sharp-pricked leaves from his coat. We trotted hesitantly back along the bridleway to the work-yard, listening to the sound of the workshop being thoroughly cleansed with the high-powered pressure-hose. The drains had even been opened, to speed the removal of the goo from the bucket.
As Ewan recovered, he became talkative (rarely a good sign).
"Jasper," he asked.
"What sort of cheese comes from fish?"
Fizzy and I exchanged a glance over Ewan's back.
"We've done this, Ewan." replied Fizzy. "Fish are little creatures who live in water. Cheese comes from milk, especially milk from cows."
"Oh right, yes. Brilliant."
The ensuing few seconds' pause indicated the imminent arrival of another question.
"What sort of fish comes from cheese?"
Fizzy gave an exasperated whimper and I scented trouble. I decided to assist.
"No, Ewan." I barked, firmly. "No. Fish have nothing to do with cheese. And cheese is nothing to do with fish. Milk - which makes the cheese that you like - comes from the teats underneath nice cows. And fishes live in water, a long way away from nice cows and their milk. There is NO cheese anywhere in the world that is even remotely connected with fish or fish products."
"Oh right, yes. Brilliant."
A further silence ensued, with Ewan's furry brows knitted tightly together as he did his best to process rational thought. Fizzy and I exchanged more nervous glances across the back of our heavily-concentrating friend. "There is!" proclaimed Ewan, finally, in triumph.
"Is what?" asked Fizzy.
"A cheesy fish! No - er - I mean a fishy cheese! There is!"
"Go on." I sighed.
"Cottage cheese with prawns in!" yipped Ewan, wagging his big fluffy tail from side to side.
"Argh!" barked Fizzy. "NO Ewan! The cheese and the prawns are separate entities! They don't come out of the cow together! You get the cheese and THEN you put the prawns in it! At different times!"
I backed Fizzy up.
"After all, Ewan," I put in, "Think about all the different things you can have mixed with cottage cheese. Herbs; garlic; onion. And my particular favourite of course - cottage cheese with pineapple. That's lovely in a granary-bread sandwich."
Fizzy nodded firmly.
"Oooooo... imagine that... pineapple..." said Ewan, pursing his lips to try and imagine the taste. "But the poor nice cows... how terrible for them..."
"What?!" barked Fizzy and I, in unison. Ewan looked back at us sternly.
"Jasper." he announced. "Have you ever seen a pineapple before?! They are huge and spiky. The poor cows - having to squeeze a WHOLE pineapple out through their teats along with the cottage cheese..."
I shook my head. We were clearly wasting our time. Fizzy rolled her eyes heavenwards.
"Get him!" yipped Fizzy, and we both chased the ever-baffled Ewan all the way back to the work-yard, pretending to snap at his heels, all three of us yapping and laughing all the way.
It was only today that the fishy smell began to fade from the workshop. I simply adore a bit of nicely-cooked fish - easy to prepare and terribly good and healthy for one's diet. But, I can assure you, it will be a LONG time before I permit the noble poisson to form any part of my menu once again...
Dear G-d, the smell...
I was very pleased to note that the pack leader in the dogs' block, Kipper, did not rule his patch with an iron paw, but with an air of dignified respect. The occasional rebellion was, naturally, swiftly and decisively squashed but, in all of our time together at the shelter, I only ever saw Kipper completely lose his rag once. That is a story for another time. For now, I was happy to find my paws and get settled into my place in the pack hierarchy.
I was both interested and pleased to note how well Dave and his staff understood the canine way of thinking. Small, telling, gestures; which would ordinarily be utterly irrelevant to humans, but which mean a great deal to dogs, were carefully observed. Things such as making sure that Kipper, as 'top dog', was given his meals before anyone else. It made things a lot easier, especially for those dogs who were inclined towards belligerence and were minded to challenge Kipper's leadership.
Like most canine-pack leaders, Kipper had an 'enforcer' - a handsome Boxer called Rex, who had arrived about a month before me and who occupied the pen at the end of my row. It was rumoured that Rex had been something of a performing dog before the death of his owner, which had led to his arrival at the shelter, and that Rex had even at one point had his own series on children's television. He was certainly a clever fellow, but did not care to discuss his past. He was not a violent dog by any means, but his strength and power meant that he was ideally formed to mete out any punishment or warnings at Kipper's behest. His (rumoured) performing background certainly gave Rex a veritable cabinet of tricks, which he could employ to fulfil his role within the pack, right under the noses of Dave and the kennel-maids, without arousing any suspicion. His skills were truly masterful.
Generally, I liked all the dogs in my part of the block - but Kipper and Rex were my best friends of all.
The first dog to be adopted during my time at the home was my immediate neighbour, Topic the Basenji. Topic was a very chirpy, affable fellow, and he was chosen by a nice couple with an 8-year-old child. In fact, he had been "reserved" by this family not long before I arrived at the shelter, but they'd been unable to collect him, as the child had been unwell. I was interested as to what would happen when one of our number was adopted. In fact, it was all rather touching. I was slightly surprised to note that there was not the slightest tinge of jealousy or bitterness from the remaining dogs as their fortunate kennel-mate was taken from his pen for the last time and walked out to his new life. I'd expected a certain amount of envy, particularly from the longer-term residents, but there was nothing but pleasure, delight, and congratulations expressed to the chosen one as he departed. As the departing dog walked towards the Door of Doors, Kipper would lead the remaining residents in a song of triumph, which every dog walked to the door of his pen to howl. Kipper taught me the words, and I was delighted to join in with the song to Topic as he left to begin his new life.
The pen to my right was empty for a while, until a little scruffy mongrel-type called Jake was brought in as a stray. He was quite quiet and preferred to keep himself to himself, but he always listened with happy, sparkling eyes to the evening conversations, jokes and songs. The pen to my left was occupied by a young Beagle called Tag. He was quite chatty, but not the sharpest stick in the woodpile. You could be barking to him and you could see in his eyes when he stopped listening to you. Still, he was generally popular. And he knew some filthy songs.
The chief source of amusement at that point in time, although he probably didn't realise it, was Plum.
Plum was a smooth-coated little Jack Russell, somewhat overweight, whose fur was partly white but mostly an intriguing shade of brown; such as I'd never seen before (or since). When looked at in a certain light, the brown fur looked almost dark purplish-red, hence his name. He lived opposite me, in the next pen on the right to Kipper's, so I could only just see him by craning my neck. Plum was affable enough, but a real oddity. He had arrived at the shelter with a toy: his dolly. It was a small, plastic, human, baby-doll with black-coloured skin and hair and dressed in a little flowery frock. Plum was utterly obsessed with his dolly (we never found out her name - he only ever called her "Dolly"). He used to wash her meticulously every evening before bed, taking care to smooth down her dress and her hair. Plum would not get into his basket if his dolly wasn't there, and he was fiercely protective of her. One of the kennel-maids once committed the cardinal sin of thinking that Plum would like it if his dolly had her dress washed. She was swiftly disavowed of this, however, as her attempt to part Plum and dolly led first to warning growls, snarls and, finally, a nasty bite. Everyone left Plum's dolly well alone after that. But that was not Plum's only eccentricity.
On my second night at the shelter, I was just beginning to fall asleep, when I heard Topic hissing at me.
"Pssst! Captain! Come and watch this!" he whispered. We padded softly to the doors of our pens and Topic quietly indicated where I should look - I noticed the glint of a number of eyes from various pens, all looking in the same direction with the occasional accompaniment of some stifled giggles. The focus was on little Plum, who was just completing his dolly's ablutions and was carefully placing her in his basket. Plum's blanket had been pulled right out of the basket and flung onto the floor of his pen. Then, Plum clambered into his basket, totally oblivious to his audience. "This is the bit." whispered Topic, his eyes not leaving Plum's pen, "It's amazing. He does it every night."
I watched, transfixed, as Plum got into his basket, then turned and grasped the edge of his blanket firmly in his mouth. With careful diligence, he then pulled the blanket right up over his head and let go only when it was completely covering him, his dolly, and, in fact, the entire basket. "Keep looking." whispered Topic. I did - and saw the shape of Plum, beneath his blanket, going meticulously around the inside edge of his basket, tucking every bit of blanket edge under the pillow on which he slept. The whole process took at least five minutes and wasn't finished until Plum was totally satisfied with the result. Once he had succeeded in completely sealing himself in with his blanket, we heard him flop down, give his dolly a little kiss goodnight and then, almost immediately, begin to snore.
It was a bizarre and highly comical process - and the serious dedication with which Plum performed his routine just added to the humour. Even Kipper thought it was hilarious. Every night, those of us who could see into Plum's pen would gather to silently (save for the quiet chuckles) witness this strange ritual.
However, it was another mark of Kipper's skilled leadership that Plum was never informed that his habits were the object of our mirth - or that any of his neighbours' amusement was derisive or mean. Any dog that looked like he might enjoy a cruel, malicious, or inappropriately mocking laugh at one of his fellows was swiftly stepped on. Usually a look or a warning from Kipper was enough to nip bullying behaviour in its bud, although occasionally Rex was engaged to "have a word with" the offender.
Some weeks down the line, the shelter was visited by a wealthy older lady who had recently been widowed and was looking for a canine companion. She had a slight whiff of eccentricity about her, although she was clearly also a very good-natured person (in fact, she donated some money to the shelter so that each dog could have a rawhide stick to chew as a treat - top result!). But we all suspected who her dog of choice would be.
Sure enough, a few days later, Plum, his beloved dolly, his basket and his blanket left to begin their new lives in the lap of luxury. Without the slightest hint of sarcasm, we sang two songs of triumph to Plum as he trotted to the Door of Doors - one for him and one for his dolly. He grinned from ear to ear all the way.