Toby Young

Who let the dog out?

Who let the dog out?
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Caroline and I are just back from a weekend break in Scotland and, nice though it was, I hadn’t realised how difficult travelling anywhere is at the moment. We had originally planned to drive, but the fuel crisis put paid to that, so we had to book a last-minute flight. EasyJet from Luton to Edinburgh was £475.92 for the two of us — ye gods! — and three days in the mid-stay car park was a whopping £128. To cap it all, the bus that takes you from the car park to the airport wasn’t running — Covid, obviously — so we had to walk about half a mile carrying our luggage.

We stayed with some friends in the Highlands for a couple of days and I went stalking — but needless to say I buggered that up. I went out with an experienced stalker called Richard and after a four-hour walk in the wind and the rain he got me lined up on an elderly stag that was lying down in the middle of a group of hinds. All I had to do was watch him through the telescopic sight, wait for him to get up and pull the trigger.

‘You’ll need to be patient,’ said Richard, noticing how excitable I was and anxious that I didn’t take a shot before the beast had got to his feet. The worst thing you can do on a stalk, short of shooting yourself or someone else, is to wound a stag instead of killing it. That will mean it suffers unnecessarily and can result in a lengthy pursuit as you track the animal to put it out of its misery. A clean shot through the heart is what’s required and anything less is a grave error.

Just as I was settling in behind the high-powered rifle, we heard the sound of a helicopter heading in our direction. The hinds stopped eating and turned towards it, momentarily frozen, as did the stag. I knew that as the engine noise got louder the hinds would bolt, followed quickly by their lord and master. In the next few seconds he would get up, then disappear over the hill. I had to be ready to shoot at any moment, so decided to take the safety off.

But I must have done it too violently, or my finger had been touching the trigger, because the gun went off. Luckily, it was pointing over the top of the herd and I didn’t hit anything, but even so it was a horrendous faux pas. Poor Richard had used all his fieldcraft to get me in a position to take the shot, we must have walked about ten miles, sometimes up very steep hills, and I’d completely fluffed it. What a lemon.

‘Don’t worry, they probably won’t go very far,’ said Richard, trying to make me feel better. But of course we never found them again.

Turned out, that wasn’t the only time an animal embarrassed us during the break. Caroline and I had left our teenage children home alone for the first time. We weren’t too concerned about them — the eldest is now 18 — but we were worried about Mali, our one-year-old cavapoochon. Would they remember to feed her? Take her for walks? They said they would, but they also said they’d do the washing up and keep the place tidy and we knew that wasn’t true. Throughout the weekend, Caroline kept checking up on her, asking the kids to send ‘proof of life’, e.g. a photograph of Mali looking well-fed and happy. She looked more miserable and hungry in each one.

Disaster struck when we were driving back to the airport. Caroline was checking the messages on our neighbourhood WhatsApp group when she saw a picture of Mali, accompanied by a message from someone who lives two streets away: ‘This gorgeous dog is in our driveway — putting him in our garden to keep safe! Do spread the word — he has no collar — very nice nature and seems like might be quite young.’ The kids had let Mali out of the house without knowing it! Cue a mummy meltdown, with lots of ears being metaphorically boxed over the phone.

An investigation was immediately launched by the children so a culprit could be handed over, bound and gagged, to Caroline when we got home. I imagine it was like the scene in Into the Woods when all the miscreants point at each other and sing: ‘It’s your fault.’ I’d been responsible for letting Mali get out once before and the hairdryer treatment I got is still burnt into my memory.

What this means, according to Caroline, is that we cannot go on holiday and leave the kids in charge of the dog ever again. If we go to Scotland next year we’ll have to take Mali with us. Even though she’s the size of a guinea pig, I daresay she’ll pose a greater threat to the local deer population than me.