Me and my sister were tied up by the lead to a bench. We were used to that – but we could still milk it with the cooing sentimentalists who thought we were being sorely mistreated. Now don’t imagine there’s any grass in sight. This is a bench for the very old who can’t make it from the high street into the shopping centre without pausing for breath. It smells of piss too – though the piss of the young, not the old. And I’m talking human here.
We were told that HE was going to be as short a time as he could possibly take to buy a shirt. We knew the shopping centre with its polished floors and antiseptic facades was a place completely closed to canines – and that the likely consequence of being caught in there was to be stuffed and put in John Lewis window with lamp shades on our heads. We were cool. Well, I was cool. My sister is an intellectual. She doesn’t do cool. She doesn’t do drop dead gorgeous. She does miserable and meaningful. Someone described her once as the only dog they had ever encountered who was undergoing a permanent existential crisis about whether she was in fact a cat. While I have no idea what existential means, I know what a cat is and I can tell you a spitting, hair-spiked, back-arched tom is a lot more fun than my sister.
We had some previous with our master going off into the shopping centre – and, to be fair, he always came back within ten minutes with that anxious look suggesting that he had been genuinely worried about our abduction. Mind you he could do anxious as easily as my sister could do bored-and-miserable. He tried hard with other humans to look easy-going, but he was attentive to people, dogs, and when you are attentive you have lots to worry about.
We were vaguely amused by the round red-faced guy handing out blue leaflets for “Dave’s Party” and we had the inevitable molester coming along to stroke us. I was a whole lot more tolerant back then about people stroking me. I don’t quite know what has happened but today I generally can’t stand having to pretend pleasure at being petted by random strangers. And anyone with spiky hair, voluminous trousers or a rucksack is likely to get a particularly rude awakening. Ok, so I’ve become tetchy. And I don’t know why. But, heh, don’t buy my sister’s crazy theory that I had my brains scrambled on the tube track. It’s true I got a shock and that I got thrown in the air, but I survived, right? So clearly I earthed that electricity. Or something.
Well, after half an hour in that no man’s land and after a particularly nauseating word of sympathy from two muesli eaters about the cruelty of leaving dogs unattended, I was beginning to feel as suicidal with boredom as my sister looks permanently. And then out he came. And without a shirt. Oh, bloody hell.
He came over, gave us both a biscuit from his limitlessly deep biscuit pocket and told us he had a problem. He said he had the option of buying a shirt for £3 which he thought was less than brilliant but still undoubtedly a ridiculous bargain. But he couldn’t buy it because it was too cheap. It could only be that cheap because the people who had made it, out in some part of the world where dogs are not treated as they are here, had been paid almost nothing. He also said he couldn’t buy it because it promoted a “disposable mentality”. To be honest, I don’t know what this means, but he seemed to think that was almost as bad as it having been made by slave labour – or a dog.
Well, my sister and I both thought – so far so clear. He has some principles which prevent him buying a £3 shirt. And then he had to work passed us his reasons for not accepting the argument that people in the third (or was it fourth?) world (or possibly second life), were better off with any job rather than no job. He got on his soap box about this, saying that this was the argument of hypocrites who needed some justification for feeling good about themselves for buying something ludicrously under-priced. That dignity, respect were central to building a better world, and that paying people a dog biscuit a day to make shirts for a shop called Primark was worse than them not having a job at all in ethical terms. (He always encouraged me to cock my leg at the entrance to this store.)
My sister and me tried to look empathetic and I tried to lighten him up by rolling over on my back and asking for a tum tickle. He always responded, but I could tell that today he had a thorn in his tail, or is it a bee in his bonbon. As you can imagine, we just wanted him to go to buy a shirt so we could get back to the park and charge down to the River Gade for a swim. But it was not going to be that easy. He then told us that he felt much better with one for £30, precisely ten times more expensive, but he said affordable. He thought that for this price he could get a good shirt. However, he was not sure if this shirt had not also been produced under near slave labour conditions and that, worse, it was being sold at an obscene profit margin. He said he was kicking himself for not having done his homework about the ethical standards of Lenin & Spencer.
His thoughts then leapt in another direction. A pity he couldn’t just leap out of here altogether. He started arguing with himself about whether, ironically, the only guarantee to be had was by buying a handmade shirt at the top end of the market. (Though you could tell he had little conviction and certainly not enough money.) At least he could trace this to a shirt manufacturer in the UK, employing highly skilled and reasonably well rewarded. But he said that he couldn’t possibly pay £150 for a shirt because for that amount of money he could buy four £30 shirts and give £30 to Oxfam.
I know I’m supposed to be the dumb one, but he then came up with the ludicrous idea that if he could get a £30 shirt reduced to £15, he would not only have got an excellent deal but the differential between cost of production and outlet price, ie profit, had been halved. This was a low risk, reasonable quality purchase …. Or something like that. The compromise of this position ate him up some more and this line of argument eventually seemed to expire in an exhalation of hot air. Now even I could see that he was struggling.
He then shared with us another alternative – that he buy his shirt from a charity shop. He may still not know about the labour that created the thing, but he was alert to other things like the recycling of goods and the financial contribution to a good cause. But then he got queasy about “second hand”, chuntering on about how he owed it to himself to buy new if he could afford it, as a way of expressing some kind of self-pride. He’d been getting a lot on this lately from SHE who kept us all in line.
I looked at my sister and she looked at me and we communicated in the same gesture our best guess as to what was going to happen now: he was going back in that shopping centre, he was going to be in there for at least half an hour and he was going to come out without a shirt. He would then tell us that the shirts he already possessed were adequate, though in fact I can tell you that some were looking more frayed than the second hand choice available from the charity shop next to the divinely scented Macdonalds.
Incidentally, every time I cleaned up a bit of burger or bun from the pavement, he said “you want to be supersized?” I think this was a warning of obesity. Oddly he never said this to my sister who is a walking barrel and always picked on me, despite my magnificent physique.
We waited thirty five minutes. We could have made enough money claiming to be collecting for the RSPCA to have bought him three £30 shirts and made a donation to second life – or is it the third world. Finally, he emerged, looking a bit guilty and expressing as usual his half joking, half serious anxiety about us having been kidnapped. He’d been worse since he saw a movie called “Lucy and Me” about a young woman who tied her dog up outside the supermarket, got arrested for shoplifting and by the time she got back from the local police station, the dog was gone. I assume the film played to his paranoia about us being taken, not his fear of being caught shoplifting. If only he had been capable of shoplifting!
He came over to us but didn’t need to say a word. He had no shirt. He shrugged, stroked both of us, unfastened our leads and off we went to the former graveyard of the parish church to throw a few sticks. He did the decent thing and walked us slowly enough around MacDonalds for my sister to do her impression of a pavement vacuum cleaner. We headed back eventually, shirtless, toward the park and the river.
He was a good bloke. But he thought about things too much. Well, I think so. But I’ve made a virtue of not really thinking about anything at all.
Listening to my brother who took over the story – don’t worry, I’m used to him taking over just about everything I initiate and I always eventually get it back because I’m smart – I am left with a strong sense of the many advantages of being a dog. The most obvious is that we don’t need shirts. Now you may find this a rather facetious point to make, but it goes to the core of what I take from his version of the shirt story. A purchase must be a terrible responsibility. You have to justify it, you have to use it, you have to care for it, you have to store it and, in the end, you have to dispose of it. I am often shocked at how this simple observation is not made by humans, especially the compulsive shoppers – what a burden of responsibility they must have, storing up so much stuff. Better to live with nothing but the coat on your back.
Not that he was tying to avoid responsibility. He was tying to do the right thing. And to be fair, he did strive to do the right thing – and not just the thing that shut up his conscience most easily and conveniently. The fact that he ended up with no shirt at all might strike you as not only a waste of time but a failure. After all we could have spent the time much more productively in Whippendale Woods chasing jack deer.
But that was him. He always seemed to be trying so hard to fit in, do what other humans do. But he found it all so hard. So, typically, he wouldn’t not go shopping. Rather he would go and come back empty handed. A simple purchase was for him a minefield of issues, a torturous experience in compromise, a deep confrontation with himself in the world.
On that particular day, he seemed more pleased even that us to be down by the banks of the Gade half an hour after this routine debacle. He loved the sun through the leaves, the dappled reflections, the beauty of the co-existing world, my brother and me diving into the water. Then he was at ease.
It would be too much to say that he would have preferred to have been a dog – let’s face it , from his point of view, we do have some pretty fundamental limitations. But he liked the simplicity of our lives and certainly our liberation from the burden of ownership. But I have to say that I had less and less desire to be human. If anything, I have cat-like tendencies (though don’t make this public). I think about how impossibly difficult it must be to be human, I mean fully consciously human as opposed to sheep-like human. Or even more, how difficult it must be to be fully conscious and still feel ok about being human. HE made it clear to us that the more he achieved what he called a “heightened state” of consciousness (?), the more difficult he found it to participate in the material and social world other than as a ghost – which is what he eventually became.
But for sure we, my brother and me, were definitely the beneficiaries of his desire not to be human, or to be a ‘higher’ human. He loved to walk, to be at one with nature, to enjoy the uncluttered life. Funny that, a ‘higher’ human is closer to being a dog.