Friends, collies, clever scientists,
(A big hello to anyone new to my blog. I’m Ben a young Border Collie on a v.v.v adventurous challenge. You can read all about it by clicking here. My blogs tell the whole story, paw by paw. I do so hope you will like them and want to follow my adventures).
Well, who ever would have thought it. Me ‘The Ben’, at the tender age of 6 years old, becoming the canine chronicler of our age, recording a world public health crisis in the annual review of my year. Back at the beginning of 2020, an age of innocence, words that now slip off the tongue so easily, like pandemic and epidemiology, were beyond the scope of my Border Collie imagining. What an education this year has been.
In January, the comforting normality of our annual cycle had announced itself. A lethargic Ben was sprawled in front of a lovely hot fire, recovering from the ravages of an exceedingly merry festive season. Daily walks were still on the cards but enthusiasm, for more than a modicum of chasing ball, was somewhat wanting. Across the airways something in the Far East – a new virus – was reported but didn’t resonate. Of much more concern were references to the way animals were bought and sold. I really thought it was time to form the Border Collie branch of the Animal Rights Movement: ‘Black and White R Us – Zero tolerance for live animal markets’. However, at the time, I was a prisoner to one of those deadly sins, the one called sloth, and my radical career was sedated by golden flames of warmth.
As January flooded into February carefully timed outings avoided the worst of the wind and rain, and my people muttered something about a nasty flu coming our way, as the big cheeses on infectious diseases began to take up more of our radio listening. But still, as in every year past, the white flowers of snowdrops – those fair maids of February – bowed their heads in deference towards the earth.
In March, I was rudely awoken when we resumed our Lake District visits, and long hours of fell walking replaced long hours of dozing. Apparently, me and B were on a programme of Munro preparation. Spring was here and the revolving wheels of my year were so reassuring familiar, even if a little exhausting. However, each morning we were greeted by scientists who hijacked the radio waves, projecting forebodings of gloom onto our day. Meantime, our political masters, or in my case mistress, instructed us to go in for a new fad called social distancing, which – mere dog that I am – sounded like a contradiction in terms.
D’s day finally came on 20th March. Though he left the caravan in rude health at 5.00pm, as was customary, he returned less that 2 hours later as a shadow of his former self. An ashen pallor had replaced the rosy complexion that usually returned from these outings, and the jocular spirit was replaced by a numbed presence devoid of speech… he was in shock. My David’s raison d’etre had been whipped away from under his pint – THE PUBS WERE CLOSED DOWN, by order of the Prime Minister.
From here, it was but a matter of two days before being banged up for the first time ever in our lives. We were instructed to go nowhere and the law kept us tied to home; the fabric of my life was torn to shreds. It seems that this supposedly little bug, working it’s way across the globe, was, in fact, a malicious Coronavirus, specified as COVID-19; it wanted to invade our lungs and stop us breathing. Now there were going to be no more Lake District walks and, not even a short trek in Maibie Forest to meet my best pal Oscar. In this period of readjustment I had to go in for one of those steep curves, making my brain hurt with all the new words to learn. For a start, we had to stay at home to stop the nasty virus thing spreading, before exponential growth took over and caused a crisis in the NHS. It was all quantified in something called the R number, which told us – if we had any inkling of what was going on – how quickly the spiky monster was working it’s way through the population. During this time of national crisis all non-essential business had to shut down and the bloke with the exquisitely tailored outfit, who holds the purse strings (no, this most definitely wasn’t the Prime Minister) said, “You can all stay at home and I’ll pay you”. Actually, it wasn’t his money but it could easily have been because he is v. v. v rich, and also a bit suave for my liking, but that’s another story. Normally, people who stay at home and draw on the governments dosh are called scroungers, who should get on their bike and look for work. Now though, people who sat at home and watched telly all day, while the government paid them, were national heroes, saving the NHS; it was all getting a tad confusing. Anyway, all this gave rise to another term I had never heard of before, furlough, which sounded a bit like those things tractors drill. After the seeds have been popped in they need sustained TLC to grow and prosper; I wonder…
Hardest of everything I learnt in these early days of the Coronavirus epidemic were the acronyms: PPE and ICU. Till now, my blogs have always been a light-hearted take on my life, looking for the humorous and commenting on the small absurdities of our everyday lives. However, the bombardment of news about the COVID imposter got underneath my skin. Because of this Coronavirus lots of people got sick, many of them needing to go to hospital and into special care. Even in these most extreme circumstances we still needed to stop the virus spreading and the arrangements for this were breathtaking. No one could visit you in hospital, to hold your paw and tell you how much they loved you. If you died, and eye-watering numbers of people have, there could be no celebration of your life to which the mourners could come. And, even though you represented every point of the compass to someone, they couldn’t even get a hug of comfort. Coronavirus was eating away at the core of our people’s humanity.
Us three counted our blessings, we were so very, very, very lucky. Not getting my usual walks, or meeting up with Oscar, was such small fry it didn’t signify at all. Our own lives slid effortlessly into a tranquil pace, walking on our lanes at home, while small miracles of nature nourished our souls (yes, Ben has one too!!). Cows, in the field seen from our kitchen window, satisfied an itch by rubbing against a fallen tree, such clever bovine creatures, or spoke sweet nothings to a special pal. Meantime, goldfinches hopped from hedge to fence, before jumping down to feed on our lawn, and virtually every evening for the three months, in that stupendous spring and early summer of 2020, light bleed into a crimson sky as the sun set.
Hurrah, at last, the end of our first lock-in. It seemed that all was under control and we could go about our normal business or, for me, normal pleasures, with only just a few limitations – yipee! Alas, I still had lots more to learn and we still had to cross a threshold into something called ‘The New Normal’. Round about this time shopping trips became quite scary expeditions where my people turned into bank robbers. In fact, everyone turned into bank robbers. Scariest of all was the sign on the bank where they secure all our money; these weren’t normal times at all – new, or otherwise; the world had gone all topsy turvy, asking bank robbers to take off their masks for identify puposes. At this point, I began to get rather worried that, with all these bank robbers knocking about, there might not be any of the readies left to buy my dinner. But then I rationalised that, if the national debt could run to trillions, someone, somewhere, would surely be able to russell up a bite of dinner for Ben. After all, us canines, and quite a few other furries, had been the main source of comfort for millions of households across the land. We had been their numero unos, so to speak. In my case this wasn’t too tricky as I was the only numero.
Our new normal did at least open the door to what me and B had been missing so much, our beloved Munro bagging. So, we set out at the end of July for a weekend in the Southern Highlands. As drove off, the wings – belonging to the butterflies in my tummy (apprised of the banking situation mentioned above) – tickled my nervous bits with concerns about where my dinner was going to come from. They really needn’t have worried because there it was, in my bowl, bang on time, every night. In fact, apart from one transient incident with a temperamental battery – which I won’t go into here – we achieved all our aspirations for that weekend, notching up a further four Munros, the last of which – Cruach Ardrain – embroidered the magical number of 100 onto our bag.
Alas, looking out from the summit cairn nothing was visible. Cloud, our frequent companion, was hobnobbing with the peaks and obscuring the view. Nevertheless, me and B liked to summon up the landscape in our imagination. Ben Lomond presided over the south, of course, her head inclined towards the loch, just as Ben More and Stob Beinn struck their doubled-sided shoulders into the sky line of the north-east. Meantime, directly north the hills of Orchy, & possibly even Glen Coe, would be issuing their own seductive invitations. Closer to our hearts were yesterday’s conquests and mighty Ben Oss – in the north-west – would be opening his arms to the heavens, through which Beinn Dubhchraig might just be visible. It was all a tad overwhelming to be up here now, in this moment of history that amplified the fragility of life – gratitude and humility coexisted; tears were shed.
During this weekend I had climbed high, waded tummy deep in bog, walked above the clouds, paid homage to the Robin Hood of the highlands, and run myself into the ground; dear dog in heaven was I done in. It’s just possible I might have raised my head to say hello to David, once I got home, and for a bite of dinner, but otherwise I slept the sleep of the just for days. Pottering around the lanes at home during lockdown, and relaxing in the garden with bottles of dog beer, didn’t – I found out – tune me up for the task of Munro bagging.
Then, as July reclined and August lifted its face towards a new tomorrow, I could sense the vibrations of something major afoot; it might even include me – oh my golly gosh, how exciting was that. Colour, joy, and I might even suggest pageant, marinated the day, as the sun tracked its golden course around the circumference of our garden. Hooray, there was liquid refreshment and tasty bites (in that order), to trace every part of the rotation. B had been working at home for a few months, always tapping away, ignoring me. Now though, she had gone in for something called retirement and, what’s more, she was never, EVER, going out in the morning to leave us alone again; my world of walks and playing ball would always be hers – FINALLY, she had seen the light.
Alas, it was only a short while later that I had to comprehend the word dilemma, and come to grips with it. Coronavirus wasn’t only the beast that was going to upset the equilibrium of my easy life. Now that I was the only numero at home (after our old girl had finally gone to sleep a couple of years ago), I needed to choose between two – equally important – roles. Either I could be B’s buddy, during Munro bagging expeditions, or I could be the the comfort at home, ensuring the home fires – burning bright – weren’t devoid of canine company; in the end, I stayed with David. Munro bagging was fine for two, three, or even four days but B, getting further north, was going in for longer shifts. In all loyalty I couldn’t desert the family homestead for so long. By the end of September B had been away on three more adventures while, every night, me and David had sent her our very best vibes – telepathically – from the comfort of our king-sized bed , warmed by a late burst of central heating; I might just have made the right decision.
As the nights got shorter another Munro season drew to a close. Despite the spiteful Coronavirus, and it’s encroachment into our civil liberties, me and B had put the 100th Munro in the bag and she had etched up a further 38, on those solo trips. But, for now at least, we were all at home together and, blow me down with a golden ring, there was another celebration on the cards.
It turns that a v. v. v long time ago, long before my biological mummy and daddy got it together, my people had tied a knot. I’m not quite sure what nautical purpose it served but, in so doing, they had to vowed to stay together forever and ever, and not to run off if one of them got ill, or had no money in the bank. Since entwining their bit of string they had opened their home to a menagerie of predecessors, who had warmed up my place on the sofa. Sam was the first Border Collie, and Sheba – his feline friend – gave way to Willow. She liked to cradle the neck, from the front or the back, looking for cuddles. Next came Toby who, like me, was a bit of a handful. There were a couple of wild creatures too, Cocky, the Cockrell (I know, I know, it’s not a very original name), and Fuchsia, the farm yard cat, so-called because they put out food for her under a Fuchsia bush (I suppose that’s a little better). Then, so sadly, there was Angel, a tiny kitten who appeared in a very bad way and, even though my people rushed her to Andy – the best vet in the world – he wasn’t able to save her, but… he could take away her pain, kindly. Last, most importantly of all, there was the old girl – Maisie – who was in situ when I arrived. She just couldn’t put a foot wrong and the number of times I was exiled to the porch is legendary, just because I wouldn’t give her a look in when B got home from work. So, there we have it, 40 years of marital bliss, obviously complete now that I’m on the sofa.
By October, that brief summer interlude – of glorious celebrations and Munro achievements – seemed like a lost Elysium, and Autumn, usually lit by bronze, began to take on darker shades. Just a couple of months earlier we had all been given a bit of dosh, encouraging us to eat out so we could help out and get the economy going again; I just can’t tell you how miffed I am that I never benefited from that particular little scheme. Shortly after though, because such mixing and mingling had got the nasty COVID fellow up and running again, we all had to batten down the hatches once more and get back onto Zoom.
Throughout the pandemic so many generous, inventive bipeds, had made their intriguing endeavours available on line, helping us to keep mind, body and spirit together. After a night time of slumber we could have greeted the new day with a spot of yoga in bed, before indulging in a delicious slow breakfast of coddled eggs, enlivened by a flambé of roasted goats cheese on fingers of burnt toast. Then, after putting the garden to rights while learning Portuguese, we might come in for a bite of braised squid resting on a bed of lightly seasoned Marigold leaves – before getting stuck into a streamed production of the ‘Ring Cycle’ for the next 17 hours, while quaffing shed loads of home made nettle beer. Finally, just in case these contributions weren’t sustaining enough, there just had to be a website somewhere that could teach a Border Collie how to play the penny whistle, something I’ve always aspired to. Sadly, my people aren’t really technical so I missed out on it all. However, of all the free on line offerings Zoom outclassed them all, because it brought people who loved each other together, seeing their faces: laughing; smiling; crying. I could see the attraction but, frankly, it wasn’t for me. My famous friend Honey had it just right, the flaw at the heart of the Zoom phenomenon. “I can’t get a biscuit on a Zoom call” she said, “I can’t do my wee sad face that gets me lots of treats on a Zoom a call.”
What Zoom really sounded like was something we all wanted to do – double quick – get past this horrible year. But, progressing towards winter was an art form – holding it together, shutting down here, there and everywhere – to salvage some semblance of a Happy Christmas from the jaws of the virus. A whole confutation of restrictions tried to contain the beast, as noises demanding to know what we might do – or might not do – over the festive season, got louder. Implicit in all the restrictions was the understanding that, if you do this now and suppress the virus, WE might let you have one or two people around, for a diminutive turkey and a small glass of Smoking Bishop. And, it has to be said that all our hard efforts, avoiding everyone in sight, seemed to reap some reward when, after a meeting of chief Cobras, on 23rd November, we were promised five days of celebration. Oh deary me, what fools we mortals be, when ever we believe a politician – spectacularly, when there is a world pandemic doing the rounds. But… oh, how we wanted to believe it, how we needed too.
Hence, almost predictably, having all the presents wrapped and the larders loaded, our dreams were wrenched from under the Christmas tree and the most dramatic U turn of our age ensued. It turns out that the COVID monster had another string to it’s bow, and Ben had more lingo to get his head around. The ‘new variant‘ I’m told, is a mutant variation on the original ghastly fiend. It seems that this one-time nasty bug had another surprise up it’s sleeve and we were back in the land of R numbers. Apparently, our new visitor could nuzzle in even more cosily, replicating its ill effects at an alarming rate and, before you could say Happy Christmas, thousands and thousands of people might be in hospital and the NHS was overwhelmed. Thus, there was nothing else for it and, on 19th December, Christmas was cancelled. The bitter pill was sweeten by saying you might have just one buddy around to help you soak up the misery, on Christmas day only. Even then, my mistress in Scotland, kept suggesting it would be much better if me and my buddy went for a long walk, instead of snuggling up by the fire after a lovely BIG dinner and lots of dog beer. I’m all in favour of a long walk myself, but I was more than a little concerned about the effect of the sub-zero temperatures, that dominate Scotland’s weather at this time of year, on all those granny’s we were going to be knocking about with.
Anyway, the long and the short of it was that, me and my people cancelled our rented cottage for Christmas, near to where we meet our special Christmas friends. We couldn’t even cross the border to England, though our caravan site was opened throughout the year, for the first time ever. Having planning an extravaganza, at said caravan – as plan B – our decorations were (are still!) in situ. Finally, after the infamous day itself was over, my B couldn’t go and see her other people in Devon – something of a tradition that she loved. From my point of view though… IT WAS TOTALLY BRILLIANT, my best Christmas ever. The butterflies in my tummy didn’t even need to get started, as no packing up commenced. Nor did I have to stay out in the cold car, during pub drinking hours, and B was home… THE WHOLE TIME. We slept in till late, had a lovely walk and game of ball in the snow, before comming home to sit by a warm fire, tucking into Christmas treats. Finally, after a lovely dinner, we all settled down for a Midsomer Murders video fest, as a suitable ending to such perfect days. What dog on earth could ask for more than that?
As the end of 2020 collided with 2021 we were still in the vice like grip of the new variant, but had reason for the biggest of all celebrations. The scientists, saluted at the beginning of my blog, had come to everyone’s rescue by pulling out all the stops out and producing a vaccine. Vaccines, it seems, are like buses. You wait an awfully long time for one to arrive and then two come along at once. We had one produced by Pfitzer in Germany, and another by Astra Zenica, from research in Morse’s own territory, Oxford. Normally, vaccines take a v. v. v. v. v. v… exceptionally long time to develop, measured in years, but it seems that – where there’s a will, and an awful lot of money, there’s a way. Thus, in the wink of a clinical trial, the solution to a world crisis was in sight.
I’m led to believe that, if everything goes to plan, .both my people could ‘be done’ by the end of February and… I’m just beginning to wonder if my annual booster, due in March, might include something a little extra.
Think I’ll sleep on it
Love Ben xx
PS As I write the snowdrops in our garden, known as the flower of hope, are poking their heads through the soil.