January 10th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

N S A - Part 3 - Rhiannon meets a stallion, and the curious incident of the dog in the fight

The cats were next to be loaded. They had their own deluxe travelling crates, which Shelagh had made for them, with separate areas for litter tray, food, water and sleeping. All carpeted and with extra blankets for the bed. The only complication was the fact that we had to arrange them in a particular order. Our cat, Guinny, a five-year-old silver tabby, didn't like Minnie, the kitten. Put them within sight of each other and spit would fly all the way from Devon to Dover. Luckily we had plenty of room in the box with its feed passages and spare stalls.

Then came the blankets and rugs for the horses, the hay and the hay nets, the dog food and cat food, their bowls and water containers.

And then our luggage - in by far the smallest bag - a change of clothing, some food, our money and all the papers we were going to need for the journey.

Finally, we collected Gypsy and, to a great cheer from postman everywhere, loaded the hellhound into the groom’s compartment behind the cab.

We were ready. All packed up and a whole new future ahead of us.

Then we remembered the Hoover.

And the bowl of cleaning materials.

And the log basket.

We made good time on our journey to Dover - the one advantage of having a force eight gale at your back. We checked on the horses every half hour or so - walking back through the box and checking their water and hay nets. And we talked to the two major feline powers about the importance of maintaining the no-spit zone.

Most amazing of all was the behaviour of Gypsy. She was quiet, perfectly behaved - curled up on the floor, lots of yawning and scratching but no barking, whining, biting or throwing herself at the driver's throat. Which was most unexpected. And worrying - was she being too good? Was this a ploy to make her next descent into the diabolic even more terrifying?

As we approached Dover, Sue's mobile phone gave us the news that the ferry companies were predicting a window in the storm sometime during the night and could we be on stand-by. They didn't know when the window would come or how long it would last but it was probably going to be the only chance of getting the horses across before the week-end.

Which presented us with another problem - where would we stay the night? Sue had suggested a hotel and was ready to book us in. But Shelagh was worried they wouldn't take a dog and three cats. And would they have a night porter who could wake us up as soon as this window arrived? We couldn't afford to miss it.

And then Sue remembered the darts room at the lairage. It was a rest room provided for the grooms. A kind of lounge cum darts room with a sofa and a few chairs - not exactly plush or indeed private - but it was warm and on-site. And if there weren't too many grooms staying over we might even be able to sleep.

The lairage was an impressive sight. A few miles outside Dover and room for about fifty horses. It was the equine equivalent of an airport hotel - close to the ferries and the stop over point for all the horses bound for the continent; the show jumpers, race horses ... and our two.

As we walked up the central aisle of one of the stable blocks we couldn't help but be awed. Every horse seemed to have its own fan-club. Each box was bedecked in rosettes and pictures. Pictures showing the horse jumping, pictures showing the horse receiving awards, pictures showing the horse smiling into camera.

Did we have any of Rhiannon? No? Not even a little one?

But Rhiannon didn't seem to mind the lack of pictures. She'd noticed the stallions. Which improved her mood considerably. The stubborn, I'm-not-moving-for-anything face, had been replaced by her look-at-me face. Complete with high tail carriage and flashy Arab trot, she pranced down the aisle, parading herself unashamedly before the stallions.

And the darts room wasn't too bad. It was small, just big enough for a sofa and a few chairs. And there was even a bathroom next door with a shower.

Then Sue suggested we had a meal at the nearby pub. We looked at Gypsy and then at each other and tried to forget the last time we'd taken one of our dogs to a pub for a quiet drink.

Zaphod had been our first dog - a whippet lurcher - and generally well-behaved. Except when provoked - usually by cats or loud noises or someone doing something unexpected, or wearing strange clothes, or looking at him funny, or walking within ten yards of a bone or anything else he claimed title to. In other words he was a normal, well-adjusted dog.

And we took him into a pub in Hungerford - The Bear, I think it was - for a quiet drink and a ploughman's lunch. Something relaxing to complete a pleasant morning's drive.

I went to the bar, a fiver in my hand, pleasant thoughts wafting brain-side. And then all hell broke out behind me – overturned tables, spilt drinks, screams. And in the middle of it all - Zaphod - dragging Shelagh over a table. I turned, folded the fiver back into a pocket and slowly walked towards the exit. I have never seen these people before - especially the little brown and white one with the terrier in its mouth.

Shelagh tells a different story. One with Zaphod as the innocent party. The two of them were merely walking towards an empty table when a small dog - the aforementioned terrier - who had been sitting under an adjoining table, loomed into view. I have never been too convinced about this part of the story - the thought of a very small terrier looming does not strike me as that credible. Zaphod, in a state of justifiable shock at the proximity of another dog and in fear of an imminent attack upon his mistress, naturally, had no other recourse other than to leap under the table and attempt to eat the terrier. In the process he happened to drag Shelagh after him. She, for some strange reason, kept hold of the lead, which immediately went under the table. Shelagh’s arm followed but her shoulders could not. So goodbye table and goodbye drinks. And hello adjoining table and adjoining table's former collection of drinks.

The staggering conclusion to this affair was that the owners of the terrier admitted full responsibility. I still can't understand why. The only explanation that stands even a modicum of scrutiny is that the terrier had a criminal record and the owners knew they couldn't afford another brush with the law.

Which, understandably, was why we weren't too keen on taking Gypsy to a pub. After all, what were the chances of finding another dog with form? Better to find an empty box, well away from any horses, and see if we can leave Gypsy there for a few hours.

Which is what we did. The grooms at the lairage said they didn't mind us using one of their boxes at the far end. And they didn't object to working to the accompaniment of a howling puppy.

We left before they could change their minds.

(next instalment: A night under canvas - almost)