The other day I arrived back from a trip abroad to find the house in its usual state of working order. The boiler had burst and there was no hot water. Katalin, the Hungarian housekeeper, claimed she had contracted frostbite in her big toe and was hopping around like a one-legged woman, complaining about the uncivilised London weather.
But, I protested, in Budapest the temperature was at least ten degrees lower than that in southern England. Yes, she replied, but in Hungary even the cleaning ladies wore fur to keep them warm. This conjured up ideas of mink toe-warmers and goodness knows what else. In lieu of my possessing any of these exotic accoutrements, I suggested we have some wine.
Thus we were both drinking Pino Grigio in the sitting-room, Katalin with her toe in the air, when this idyll was interrupted by a series of loud noises. One of the neighbours was having a party. They had turned the decibels up on the music system and then began to let off fireworks. Halfway into our bottle of wine, we were only mildly irritated by this, but something odd began to happen to Mimi, the Wyatt family hound.
First the thing began to shake. Then it let out a great howl of displeasure. This was followed by more shaking and then by a series of horrible choking sounds. I had heard somewhere that dogs dislike loud noises and expected she would calm down. But the choking became worse. I ran for a book I have on first aid for dogs. I have to say that this book turned out to be singularly unhelpful. There was nothing in the index about fireworks. Eventually, I found a section on panic attacks. There were a series of options. One was to ‘take dog to vet immediately’. This did not seem a good idea, considering the amount of alcohol we had consumed. And in any case by the end of the journey poor Mimi might have croaked it.
The other main option seemed simply sadistic. It was something like, hang it upside-down and hit it. Besides, as she was snarling, in between choking, I would not have got within three feet of her. What we need here, I thought, is a dog sedative. Then I recalled a story from Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. I remembered vaguely that one of the Emperor Augustus’ grandsons had, for a joke, made Augustus’ favourite dog drunk. It had staggered about for a bit, then fallen asleep at his feet.
Dog lovers will castigate me for grossly irresponsible behaviour. But I dipped two fingers into my Pino Grigio and gingerly approached. Mimi sniffed, took a small lick, then turned away and began shaking again. Katalin suggested it was not enough. I offered the hound more, but she didn’t seem to take to the stuff. Admittedly, it was very cheap plonk. Katalin said, ‘Bubbles calm ze stomach. Zere is a bottle of champagne in the fridge.’
‘I’m not opening a bottle of champagne for a dog,’ I protested. But the poor thing appeared so miserable that I relented. I felt pretty miserable myself, as it was good champagne. This time I poured it into her water bowl. She smelt it, as if testing the bouquet. Then she began to gulp it down like a lush. Suddenly, the shaking stopped. So did the choking. A satisfied expression came over her little face. When the next firework exploded, she simply did a little dance. Then she made for the actual bottle. When I snatched it away, she bit me. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the bottle was consumed by moi.
I dread to think what I have started. I had better lock the cellar. There are still some fairly decent bottles of claret down there. In the meantime, there is always the possibility of composing an alternative first-aid book for dogs. I hope, however, that I have not turned a nice girl like Mimi into an incipient alcoholic. She did sleep very late the next morning and her eyes were distinctly bloodshot.