‘Can I go and play with Twiggy?’ If dogs could talk, this is what my spaniel Cydney would be saying to me every five minutes. She has made friends with the spaniel in the house up the track and the pair are beginning to show signs of folie à deux.
I leave my door open because it’s nice weather and one minute my dog is lying on the front lawn, the next minute she’s gone. Either she sneaks off to find Twiggy, or Twiggy comes to call for her. Sometimes I catch her wiggling under the gate and trotting off with the little brown spaniel.They look back over their shoulders at me before starting to run.
I used to walk up to Twiggy’s house and find them chasing each other gleefully round in circles in the pony paddock, watched over by a grumpy-faced Shetland who every now and then would show them a hoof. Either that or they would be leaping in and out of the pond. I used to think, ‘Aw! What harm can it do?’
But since the pair of them got into ratting missions, it isn’t just a case of harmless playdates. They disappear. They take off like Thelma and Louise. They know full well they are on the run and the authorities are looking for them.
Apart from me and Twiggy’s owners, the gamekeeper is on their case. ‘You lost a dog?’ he calls to me as he goes past the gate in his Defender.
‘Oh, er, um...’ I say, rushing out of the kitchen to realise the lawn is empty, dammit.
And the gamekeeper, roll-up between his teeth, reaches across to the seat beside him and produces a mud-covered Cydney by the scruff and passes her through the window.
‘Oh, er, um...’ I say.
‘Hmmm,’ says the gamekeeper. ‘I found ’em in Big Wood.’ And there’s Twiggy on the back seat, also caked in mud, a look on her face that says ‘busted!’ But you can tell she and Cydney are already planning the next breakout.
Cydney slinks back inside the house and a few hours later I think she’s sitting on the lawn and then when I next look she’s gone. ‘Cydney!’ I scream.
The other night, she woke me up whining. I thought she was asking to go to the loo, but I should have known better. I let her out, stood huddled by the door for a few seconds and when she didn’t come back, decided to go back to bed.
I left the door ajar and assumed she would come in before too long. Imagine my panic when I woke up an hour later and realised the dog wasn’t there. I couldn’t scream for her and wake the neighbours. So I got in the car and drove down the track. All the warning lights came on in the Volvo. ‘Transmission Service Required! Anti-skid Service Required! Immobiliser!’
‘Oh shut up, don’t you start!’ I snapped back.
I drove up and down. I shouted for the dog from inside the car hoping she might hear. But the spaniel had obviously done a midnight flit with Twiggy. When she did finally tiptoe back in at 3 a.m., I was waiting up to give her a piece of my mind. But to no avail.
The next afternoon the keeper brought the pair of them back again. Sitting in the back seat together this time they were, muddy-faced, like two criminals in the back of a police car.
There was only one thing for it. I had to phone the spaniel trainer. ‘Can we come?’ I pleaded. He hasn’t seen me for a lesson since the shooting season ended. He has made it clear he takes a dim view of my lax training schedule.
But I just thought it wouldn’t hurt for the mutt to have a few months off. How wrong I was. Give a working cocker a few months off and it turns into one half of Thelma and Louise — whooping and drinking beer and shooting people’s tyres. Well, you know what I mean.
When we turned up for our lesson, I said a prayer as I let her off the lead. But to my astonishment, Cydney walked to heel, retrieved dummies and worked the bramble patches perfectly.
And then, as a rabbit broke cover and I blew the whistle for her to leave it, she did leave it. I gasped. I shouldn’t have done that. Because apparently, up until then, I had been getting away with it.
‘Why are you looking so surprised?’ said the spaniel trainer, narrowing his eyes.
‘Because,’ I said, trying to think fast, ‘because...’
‘Are you surprised because you haven’t been doing all the practice you should have been doing with her for the past few months?’