The dog that chose me

I want you to know that I’m not a dog person. I’m not a cat person either. I get that people like pets, but I don’t really. I’m not a psychopath, I don’t think – I’m sure if I had a pet I would love it too, if it was sufficiently lovable, and I know that would be very nice and very rewarding, but none of that strikes me as being reason enough to actually get a pet, with all the expense and effort and curtailment of personal freedom that would entail. I guess for me pets are a bit like children.

So when I tell you about Rosie, I want you to understand that I am not being sentimental. It is not my default setting to be moved by ragged, homeless, odd-looking mutts that come knocking at my front door. When I say that Rosie is extraordinary, you need to know that I am offering you a cold scientific analysis. These are the facts I’m giving you.

Rosie walked up to my door earlier this week. She is about eight months old, I would guess, and is pitch black and has a long, pointed face that no one would describe as objectively attractive. “Rosie” is short for “Rosenberg”, as in Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Do you remember the two spies in Spy vs Spy in Mad magazine? The black spy and the white spy? She looks like the black spy.

She is no looker, but you would have to be a Bolshevik not to recognize her superior class. She has dignity and light-footed grace. She has nobility of mien and carriage. Above all, and I cannot stress this enough, she has manners. She was hungry, of course, but did not beg. When I fed her from my plate, she ate swiftly and neatly and then turned her profile to the middle distance with the air of an aristocrat who has received a good meal at a relative’s stately home and can find nothing about which to complain. None of that staring up with hopeful eyes, none of that whining or pestering or threatening to put her front paws on my leg. She asked for nothing and expected nothing, but she was powerfully, movingly grateful when she received it. She has self-respect. Can you say the same about your dog? Can you say the same about yourself?

When I took her for a walk around the village to see if anyone recognised her, she trotted at a fixed half metre from my heel, sometimes behind, sometimes to the side, never getting under foot. She never barked, except once, in an undertone, to warn about a gang of sinister looking guinea fowl idling casually closer.

Rosie is a mystery. She is unmistakably a street dog, but with the habits and instincts of one to the manor born. Where has she been? Where was she last week, or last month? What sights, what adventures? Flatteringly, she seemed to find in me those qualities that she has been roaming the earth to find. Once we met, she stayed close. She looked at me with – I might think, were I given to anthropomorphizing – an air of satisfaction. “I have found you,” she seemed to say. “And now all is well and all will be well.”

As Rosie arrived I was packing. I’ll be on the road again for several months, first in Los Angeles, then walking Hadrian’s Wall, then back to Greece. Rosie approached my suitcase and started sniffing at a pair of shoes that I use for walking any sort of distance. I took them out of their shoe-bag for her. She sniffed and snuffled and looked up at me knowingly and sniffed some more. All I could know of Rosie was what was in front of me, the mute thereness of her, but for her my past wasn’t past, it was right there too, as present to her as her stupid pointy face was to me. She smelt the karoo hillside I’d crossed the day before, and all the living things that crossed it before I did. She met for herself every dog I passed on the Sea Point promenade last week; she re-walked the streets of Rome last month, and strolled down the banks of the Tagus with me to Belem last December, sniffing at gulls and river spray and at ghosts and shades of presence at which I can’t even guess. I watched her time travel, and when she stopped she knew more of my life than I can ever know of hers.

I am in Johannesburg now, and soon I’ll be in a succession of airports – unloving and unliving places that dogs are too smart to visit. Rosie is with KAPS – the Karoo Animal Protection Services – and they will dose her and feed her and hopefully find her the home she deserves. I can’t be with her now, and the truth is we can’t be together in the future, but Rosie is a time traveler. All we have is the past, and I hope we’re still together there.

The Times – 25 February 2020