The daily grind 2: dog-walking


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.

The daily grind 1: early morning

This is the first of a few posts about what a retired person has time to get up to when other people are at work.


The alarm hastily silenced, I slide out of bed as quietly as I can, so my wife can get another half-hour’s sleep.  In the bathroom, I put on the clean shirt, underwear and socks I left on the landing last night. I will be having my shower at the gym, after aquarobics at 7.30.  I can’t find my slippers, so I gingerly descend the polished wooden stairs in stockinged feet.

It is still very dark outside as I put on the kettle. I shut the kitchen door because of the noise and get on with washing a couple of dirty pans left from last night. When the kettle boils I make tea. I can empty the dishwasher later. In the sitting-room the dog opens one unfocused-looking eye, but doesn’t stir from her basket. She is ten now, and sleeps in like a teenager.

At 7.15 I head for the gym, these days modishly described as a Wellness Club, though this seems not to have penetrated the thinking of the people who run the small cafeteria on the first floor down. The swimming-pool is also on this floor. The changing rooms are on the floor below. On the stairwell wall there is a hand-written poster saying ‘Be Stronger than your Excuses’ alongside others bearing profundities of the ‘work hard, play hard’, ‘no pain, no gain’ type. There is a poster advertising Zen classes, and one offering something called Body Jam, which I have never asked about but I hope is something you can do.

In the men’s changing-room, insipid pop music plays in the background. The room is empty, but as I am changing other people arrive, giving a courtesy ‘bom dia’ as they enter, in the Portuguese way. None of these will be doing aquarobics, however, which is mostly considered something for women and old men.

It’s a 25-metre pool, in an enclosed space like a two-storey hangar. It is overlooked from the second of these storeys by floor-to-ceiling observation windows, which offer a view from the exercise-machine and weights rooms on the ground floor. The instructor is already at the poolside fiddling with the useless little sound-system, which is finally induced to play muffled 90s dance music to which nobody pays the slightest attention.

There are about a dozen women in the pool and one other man, a regular without much hair under his bathing cap but a thick white pelt of it on his back and shoulders. Most of us are in our sixties and maybe seventies, though some are slightly younger. The instructor is a skinny, bounding, high-spirited young woman called Inês, who models the exercises with great definition and crispness, and keeps an eye on what people are actually doing below the surface. This is invariably quite different from what she is doing, so there is a constant flow of grinning banter, mockery, correction and encouragement, which has no effect whatsoever. Most of the participants continue to make only the sketchiest attempt to replicate the exercises, and around half chat through the entire programme, only breaking off to protest with ponderous girlishness at any exercise they consider to demand unreasonable exertion. There is plenty of laughter. As we work our way through the programme, I wonder what these women are like in their lives outside the pool. In it they behave like insubordinate ninth-graders, enjoying every minute.

As I walk back to the car reflecting severely on slogans, their epigrammatic vacuousness, their  sentimentality, their obviousness, their corrosive effect on thought, my eye is providentially drawn to a new and uplifting piece of graffiti: ‘se caires 100 vezes, levanta-te 101’ (if you fall a hundred times, pick yourself up a hundred and one.)  I think this through doggedly, and discover that it is impossible: once you have risen from your hundredth fall, the only way to get up for a hundred-and-first time is to fall over again. I wonder censoriously if it might not have been better for the young author to carry out this simple thought-experiment before putting pen to wall, but know in my heart that he* has probably got it right: nobody expects slogans to mean very much.

*I know, it could be a she.