I pull the tall gate to, and it closes behind me with a crash. As always the dog wants to turn right, out of the small largo* where our house is, round the corner, down the steps and then down the hill to the little allotments near the dual carriageway. But we’re going the other way, a five-minute walk past the school to the park.
The road is a quiet one. There are turnings to the right, but these are safe, square little cul-de-sacs, separated from the road by the broad, uneven pavement of square cobblestones, so the dog is off the lead. She trots ahead of me jauntily, sniffing at this and that, stopping now and then to pee or to check that I’m following.
The area is modest, lived-in, more comfortable than prosperous. There are two or three small apartment blocks in need of a coat of paint, but mostly it is one- or two-storey houses. There are red rooves, head-high fences, small gardens, yuccas, a big broad-crowned pine. Here and there along the pavement lie the hard dark bean-pods of carob trees, the broad-mouthed seed-cases of jacarandas. Across the road, behind a chain-link fence, are the worn-looking grounds of the primary school, an unassuming one-storey building. At the open service gate two dinner-ladies in white overalls are smoking. No other life is visible, though in the warm late-winter sunshine I can hear the swizzling call of a serin somewhere nearby. Sure enough, as I finally think of looking straight up, I catch a glimpse of canary-yellow as it flits from the telephone-wire it has been perching on.
The dog has found an especially appealing gatepost, which she is sniffing thoroughly at various angles and heights. If she was on the lead I would tug at it, but now I wait accommodatingly for a few seconds then walk on. She can follow at her leisure. She is a short-haired, plumpish, intelligent little mongrel, with slightly protuberant eyes set in a head which might be considered handsome in isolation (perhaps only by me), but is unfortunately two sizes too small for her body. With her black and tan markings she is often taken for a Jack Russell, but apparently she isn’t one, she is the issue of a spaniel bitch and something else. We took her on after the death of her second owner two years ago, and she came with the name Gucci. She is ten years old.
As we reach the little park we are approached excitedly by Charley, a friendly long-haired terrier with bright black eyes. I enjoy stroking his coat, although after Gucci’s well-covered ribs, he seems skinny and knobbly under all the silky hair. His owner is friendly and open in a way that the guarded Portuguese rarely are. He is Ukrainian, or Moldovan, one of those. When Veronica and I bump into him last thing at night, he has sometimes had a drink or two. The other night he confided that he is lumbered with Charley because his wife bought him as a puppy expecting a lap-dog, and now won’t have anything to do with him because he grew too big. What she probably thought she was getting was a handbag dog like a Maltese Bichon. A friend of ours has one which she stows in her bag whenever she goes on the train.
The park is unenclosed. Along one edge is a line of plane-trees, and there are a good number of ornamental species as you walk through: Indian bean-trees, three or four bushy-crowned pepper trees, currently with clusters of tiny pink peppercorns, and plenty of Australian casuarinas, whose needles and tiny, precisely-knurled cones can be found scattered beneath them. It is an attractive place to be when the sun is out, especially late afternoon, when the shadows are dark and long on the bright green lawns.
We pass the enclosed playground, equipped with a slide, swings, a climbing frame and so on. The council has put up an energetic sign ‘expressly prohibiting’ the presence of dogs in the playground and ordering that the gate always be kept closed, so in my public-spirited way I close it every time I pass. I have taken to doing things like this, tut-tutting my way through the day. In the summer I pick up beer bottles and cans left near the benches by damaged people and dope-smoking youths, and put them in the recycling bin nearby.
On a whim I sit on a bench, close my eyes and raise my face to the warmth for half a minute, like a man with a hangover in a hot shower. When I open my eyes Gucci has walked on, and is looking back at me nonplussed. She returns and roams about sniffing for a little while before stretching out on the asphalt nearby, chin on the ground. Her eyes are closed, but she isn’t sleeping: at the distant sound of a child’s voice her head snaps up instantly, ears raised like periscopes.
I do draw the line at picking up other people’s dog-shit. There is always plenty of this, even though there are two or three black-bag dispensers in the park. You’ll have to take my word for it, but if there’s anything worse than picking up your own dog’s warm stools, it is picking up another dog’s cold ones by mistake.
Sometimes the turds are piled on top of one another like little cairns, clearly the work of a large animal like the one we bumped into the other morning. He was a huge black thing with a heavy leather collar and a tag bearing his name – Brutus or Hercules or something, one of those big-dog names the Portuguese like – and a phone-number. Veronica thought he might be lost, and wanted to reassure the owners that he was alive and well, but there was no reply to her call or to the text she sent. This of course was because they knew perfectly well he was out, having let him out themselves twenty minutes before. This is quite common practice in Portugal, and is probably the main reason the country’s parks and pavements are coated in dog-shit; but why put yourself to the bother of taking your dog out, when he is perfectly capable of doing his business without your supervision?
Which is all very well until you consider the case a year or two ago of a woman who was attacked outside her house at seven-thirty in the morning (the time of day is a give-away), by four rotweillers which had ‘escaped’ from the house of a neighbour. She was so severely mauled that a few hours later she died of her wounds in hospital.
*Largo: a small square, sometimes not much more than a wide place in the street.