The old dog was in a companionable frame of mind and she trotted along at my side, glancing up now and then at my face with a grin, perhaps with happiness at being out and about in a pleasant temperature in a changing season. Each evening we tread the same 40-minute circuit out of the village and back. Along the route are several doggy equivalents of a message board, of which she is a fanatical reader and contributor. Her evening walk is the highlight of her day. Otherwise the old girl sleeps.
The circuit is a popular one with other dog walkers. There is, for example, a French girl of about 15 who is Nature’s last word in animal beauty. It is better for me to look at the ground as we pass otherwise I have suicidal thoughts. She has a hairy mongrel. Also encountered from time to time is an English gardener. When he isn’t gardening he lives alone with his dog in a darkened house. Because he sees every person he meets as a golden opportunity to expend the backlog of words he has amassed during the previous 24 hours of solitude, my heart sinks when I see him. At this time of year his skin is nearly black and his lope is as distinct as his lively and affectionate little dog, a sort of leggy wheaten terrier, Italian by birth, found abandoned in Rome. This dog expresses the accumulation of his thwarted affection by always trying to poke his tongue into my mouth.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ said the gardener from 15 yards off. ‘I’ve got too many clients and they all want me at the same time. They all think I’m theirs exclusively. I can’t go on like this. Then, the solution struck me like a thunderbolt when driving this afternoon. I’m going to have to drop about four of them. But which ones?’
The unreasonable demands of his clients is a major theme. When he is speaking of them I imagine them as a unit and see in my mind’s eye a dense crowd of liver-spotted English alcoholic expats clamouring angrily for his attention. If I stop walking and lend an ear, I can be standing in the road for a stupefied hour as he unburdens himself. Yet I am torn. I might write a magazine column about myself every week, but in my heart there is nothing about myself — thoughts, actions, previous history — that I find interesting or significant. Certainly nothing worth talking about. (Admittedly this alters when I’m drunk.) But those who find the minutiae of their life so engrossing that they feel a compulsion to describe it to somebody else at the slightest opportunity genuinely fill me with wonder and admiration. I suppose it to be a gift or reward of infinite riches given to the innocent of heart. Unfortunately for me these award winners are magnetically drawn to my person, like dowsers to an underground water supply.
This time, gathering darkness and an appointment intervened before he could get it all out. Before he left, I got a description of the individual to be met, her appearance, salient characteristics, attributes as a chef, and the recipe of her signature dish; also the archaeology of his changing attitudes to the venue they were meeting at. He was still talking as he and his dog vanished into the gloom. My dog Sally — the Salster — let it be known that she was mightily pissed off by a stationary interlude lasting half an hour.
On our home stretch through an olive grove two more figures with a dog came in sight. Relief that I didn’t know them turned to despair when they drew level and we recognised each other. This was a Chicago couple who were so antipathetic to President Trump that they’d emigrated to Europe. The first time I met the guy, before a lunch, he’d started banging on about Trump straight after the handshake and exchange of Christian names. When I responded by naming some of President Trump’s achievements in office, his face changed colour and it took him about an hour to forgive me enough to speak to me again.
I hadn’t seen them for some months. In the interim I had become interested in American politics largely via my subscription to the excellent US edition of the Spectator. I led off with the view that Biden’s lead in the polls was making me uneasy. Before I could explain that my unease was due to his lead being too great for comfort, rather than too shrinkingly small, as they had thought I meant, they were both so visibly shattered by the thought of four more years — lovingly entwining their fingers as before a firing squad — that I didn’t disabuse them.