Travelling by tube is so easy I really don’t know why more dogs don’t do it. It’s idiot proof – well, almost. Doors only open at what are called stations stops and so all you have to be able to do is count. Two to Northwood. Ten to Finchley Road. Admittedly I am talking with easy confidence about the rattling old surface Metropolitan Line – rather than those unbearable under ground lines and their thunderous, screeching trains. Which is not to say I can’t do the latter. On the contrary, I have negotiated my way through those old bomb shelters with some aplomb. And I can advise you on which interchanges are possible in town without going anywhere near one of those terrifying escalators.
Today was the easiest of all. Northbound platform (left) at Croxley and a single stop to Watford. No counting at all – so even my brother can manage this. Now my brother is not exactly stupid. He’s that boyish cliché: good at games, making loud noises and generally being a pain in the butt. Can he count? Well, er.
Let me tell you I am still in recovery from a few weeks ago when he had to count to two and only managed to get to one. The doors of the tube open at God forsaken Moor Park and what does he do? He ambles off onto the platform drawn by the sweet if distant smell of fox and the doors close behind him. What could I do but continue on to the next stop, sprint across the bridge and leap through the closing doors onto the last carriage of the northbound train going back up the line. By the time I got back to Moor Park there were two solemn station staff looking up the track. “He’s gone, for sure. Poor blighter, if only he had come to us instead of being freaked out by the arrival of the last down train.” I could see it all in my mind’s eye. He had edged his way toward the ramp at the end of the platform to consider his options (I’m seriously flattering his intelligence here) when a train pulls in and he panics, running off vaguely in the direction of home. Did he consider the 650 volts of electricity running through the metal rails? Did he consider the frequency of up and down tube trains? I think not.
It was a strange ten minutes. Would I miss him? Well, yes I would. Terribly. And yet …. there was a quite physical sense of elation, of liberation. He’s gone!
As these rather embarrassingly contradictory feelings formed and flashed themselves across my mind, I found myself whimpering and barking. I was making a scene. It was all I could do. And it worked. Four line maintenance workers trundled onto the platform, one with a terrifying five foot chunky spanner that could easily have knocked my head off, another with a long thin black horn and green flag. They showed some interest in my tantrum and continued on to talk to the helpless station master and assistant. After a couple of minutes, during which I was looking for the inevitable blue spark from up the line and the whiff of fried dog, a train pulled in and the four heroes jumped on board to attempt mission impossible and bring bros back. Only in retrospect did I realise they were most likely going to clean up the line and remove a potentially dangerous if rather mushy object from the track.
For the longest of five minutes all kinds of things went through my mind. I would like to tell you that I went through the pros and cons of my dear brother having fallen into the state of tragically deceased. My distress surprised me. My embarrassment nearly killed me.
And then, quite amazingly, all was as it had been. In the drivers cab of the next (delayed) Baker Street bound tube were crowded the four workers and a panting, pink tongued slightly manic looking dog. Indeed it looked as if he were driving the tube. I have to say that he looked rather handsome, even commanding. Then my embarrassment returned in an even more intensified form.
And then the survival instinct. With a vision of dog warden and Battersea beckoning, I dashed down the platform and as soon as the cab door opened I pulled the stupid mutt out by his collar rough and told him to follow me, to run like the blazes. We dashed down the stairs and through the posh school exit into the woods by Sandy Lodge golf course. He was in a demented state – which means that I couldn’t tell if he was any different from normal. As I pulled him out of the driver’s cab I had heard the words “electric shock”, “six feet in the air” and “he definitely got a shock”. I sat there with him for a good while as he calmed down. I was struck with the absurd thought that maybe his brain had been unscrambled and from now on he was going to give a passing impression of an intelligent, quick witted sheepdog. Never let it be said that I am not an optimist.
I can report that weeks later, other than a noticeable level of caution as a tube pulls in to the station with him emerging only at the last possible moment from a defensive position under a platform bench, he is fine. I have had nightmares, not about him dying, but that some bionic qualities may have been triggered and he becomes eight feet tall and armour plated.
That’s my brother. And that’s the worst day we’ve ever had travelling by tube.
Today, as I was saying, before I wandered into this fraternal digression, was an easy journey. One stop. Even the Einstein of the canine community could manage that. We got to Watford Met Station – a place that seems to have been constructed as a private terminus for the well healed middle class and absolutely hopeless for anyone who lives in the terraced streets of the railway town a mile away. Off the tube we did our customary sweep through what we can only assume is a ticket barrier system designed by someone who had earlier worked on cat flaps. We jogged into Cassiobury Park and after allowing ourselves to be teased by a couple of particularly scraggy grey squirrels, and after bros did his usual thing of snarling at a bull mastiff (on a lead) that could have killed him with one bite. We headed off down the bike lane running alongside the main road and then via the underpass into the pedestrianised shopping centre. It’s a route we know so well, passed the ornamental pond facing the night clubs – with all the dross of the morning after the night before floating in it, toward the fast food outlets around the old parish church. Of course, it takes for ever to get there as my brother has to maintain every lamppost en route. I have told him often enough that McDonalds stop serving the big breakfast at 11 and that the chances of getting left over hash browns and pancake with maple syrup is likely to be zero by 11.30. But he wanders down there as if content to pick up bits of grissle and pastry which constitute something called a ‘pie’ from the appalling bakers that services the people waiting for buses to Hemel and Ricky.
It may have been a smell. In fact it’s always a smell: memory prompted by the most peculiar smells. It was at the fruit stall precariously erected on the concourse leading to one of the entrances to the shopping centre that we were both halted in our tracks, even though by now we were no distance from McDonalds. It was a sweet decaying smell coming from a crate of discarded oranges and apple, not unpleasant, and for both of us redolent with associations. It was a day, the previous summer, and HE had brought us on the very same route I have just described to you. We got to this point and he decided to tether us with our leads to a pretty forsaken winos bench half way between the fruit stall and the shopping centre entrance. He received a vague promise from a young woman on the fruit stall that she would keep her eye on us and he got a much more hearty commitment from a young man handing out with great enthusiasm blue leaflets promoting a political party, though a dog less intelligent than me might have been misled as to what exactly “Dave’s Party” was.
My brother and me both picked up the smell, the memory, and felt obliged to drag a few paltry chicken bones with us over to the bench. As we picked away at them, at chicken flesh that can surely never have constituted any part of an actual chicken, we shared our recollections of that day with him at this very bench.