Low life

Low life

13 August 2015

1:00 PM

13 August 2015

1:00 PM

Toby goes to bed at 10 o’clock sharp every night otherwise he gets irritable. Toby sleeps on the bed always. Toby is too old to jump up on to the bed, so the bedroom footstool should be placed next to the bed to help him to climb up. He is also allowed up on the furniture. Toby’s food bowl should be filled every morning and his squeaky hedgehog toy should be placed in the bowl with his food, or he won’t eat. He is allowed six treats per day from the Silver Jubilee tin on the fridge. Toby likes to be patted but not stroked. Stroking upsets him and he may bite.

These were the instructions for my three-night dog-sit.

Toby is a 12-year-old, mostly white, very male Jack Russell. Although he is now deaf, touchy and barrel-shaped, one can still see that he must have been a fine-looking animal in his pomp. When I was introduced to him by his owner before she left for the airport, I stooped and gave the old boy’s head and lower back a friendly pat, plus one small experimental stroke, and he went berserk, snapping and snarling at me like the proverbial sclerotic old Major.


We spent our first evening together in the sitting room. There were two sofas, each with three cushions. On the face of all six cushions was a tapestry picture of Toby’s head and shoulders. He sat on his sofa radiating noli me tangere. I sat on the opposite one reading Take a Break and listening to the wonderful Craig Charles show on Radio 2. Every time I looked up from the magazine, Toby’s black, expressive, almond-shaped eyes were watching me intently, perhaps wondering where I stood on the political spectrum.

I’d flung open the windows to let in the summer night air. We were quiet and peaceful until a bloody great hornet flew into the room at 40 miles an hour, head-butted a light bulb, then zoomed about in a deranged, random manner. To hand, fortunately, was one of those tennis racquet-style insect killers where you trap the insect against the strings, press a button on the handle, and the insect is sizzled to death by electrocution. I stood on the sofa wildly swinging and swiping at the punch-drunk hornet with this technological triumph, while Toby followed its erratic flight with his eyes in that calm, professional manner typical of a Jack Russell terrier.

Eventually, the hornet paused for thought on a standard lampshade and I got the bat over it, pressed the red button, and miniature diadems of sparks snaked festively around its thorax, paralysing it. When I thought it was done to a turn, I lifted the bat and the hornet fell to the floor. Toby climbed down from his sofa, ambled over to inspect the scene, and the silly old sod accidentally stepped on the hornet, which perhaps wasn’t quite dead, and received its sting in the pad of his near-side back paw. The evidence for this was the dog flinging himself down and gnawing frantically at his paw pad, trembling violently all over, and crying out piteously.

Bicarbonate of soda, said Google. I found a jar in the larder and tipped some into a mug and mixed it with water. Then I got hold of the dog’s leg and shoved the paw into the mug and held it there to soak. I think the dog was so surprised by this innovative affront to his dignity that he forgot to lose his temper. Then he remembered. With an angry snort he bit my hand — ineffectually — and withdrew his foot from the mug. I slapped his face, hard, and stuck his leg back in the cup. And we went on like that — nip, slap, nip, slap — until finally he did a sort of spinning-crocodile manoeuvre and ran away on three legs.

I ran back to the iPad. Yes, dogs do indeed die from hornet stings, said a Google search result, listing anaphylactic-shock symptoms, of which trembling was one. Further panic-stricken online searching came up with a vet’s advice to check the site for the barb and poison sac and if possible remove it. Oh, great. So we had another violent struggle for possession of his back paw, during which I tried to examine the pad with a pencil torch — and failed. Now it was my turn to lose my temper. ‘Die, then! Die!’ I yelled at him.

Two hours later, after further tempestuous applications of baking soda, the crisis had passed. He lived. Our evening of death, pain and violent struggle concluded with one final battle of wills about whether or not Toby was going to sleep with me on the bed, a battle which he comprehensively lost.

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