Culture Magazine

Travels with the Puppydog

By Terpsichoral

The sky is velvety thick, clotted with clouds, heavy with the rain that is to come. Above and behind us, the villa’s tall French doors are open to the warm night. My sleeping pad waits patiently for me in the high room, galleried with naked statues below the frescoed ceiling. A huge stone dog guards the entrance, a petrified domesticated Cerberus. The music begins again and I reposition my left arm around him, a little uncertain how to hold on: with it high around his shoulders I feel pleasantly stretched and it feels closer to a real-life hug, but it is tiring and I soon slip it down to the level of his shoulder blade. I feel a little like a rock climber reaching for a handhold which is just out of range. I shut my eyes and focus on the points of contact. His left arm is a little stiff and I try to focus on keeping my own arm soft and relaxed, on the doughy feeling of his very soft fingers curled around my right hand. A large chubby splay-fingered paw holds my back very high up, above the elastic line of my strapless top, close to my shoulder, holds me reassuringly, firming up the pressure if I threaten to slip away, like a frog foot sinking just slightly into pudding-textured mud, keeping me within the circle of joint flesh. He lists a little towards the centre of the floor, like a motorcyclist turning a tight corner, like a yacht tacking in the wind. He turns in a twisty spiral, eyes looking down, turning around himself like a big eager dog chasing his tail. A large, furry, friendly Bernese mountain dog.

This square wooden floor is like a raft on a sea of lawn, like a boat on a breezy sea. He rocks slightly from toe to heel. The deck is slippery with sea water and we are blown off course from time to time and fight to keep our balance in the stiff sea breeze. We are tacking into a make-believe storm, Biagi our Prospero. I don’t have my sea legs yet: I feel my limbs are tense, wobbly and awkward. Because suddenly it matters to me. I want him to enjoy this trip, this tiny ocean voyage, to accept his stowaway and I feel an anxiety which courses straight through me to my mosquito bite-speckled feet in the heels which feel suddenly spindlier than usual.


This is my lifeboat, my wandering bark, my ship to traverse this miniature ocean: this broad strip of his body. The rest of him is far away, above or below or set well back. I just feel this: a stripe a handbreadth and half thick from the middle of his ribcage, beginning at just below his nipple level and ending at his bottom ribs. Despite his fleshy softness of body in real life, in the embrace he feels firm, torso jutting forward like the prow of a gondola and curved slightly down towards and around me. I am tipped forward more than usual. It feels exciting but precarious. And I have to concentrate hard to stay with him, to stay on board this boat. To roll across and around him in a hundred giros, to keep the side of my chest just touching him, as he sweeps me round into a parada and I climb his leg with a slow foot, trying to infuse the movement with the drama and suspense that the music calls for, trying to express with my free leg, a leg a little nervous at its solo, at its close-up, camera-shy but trying to embody, to let him feel exactly how much it is feeling, translating the airy insubstantiality of music into the clumsiness of too solid flesh. It is thrilling, this game. How far can we twist and turn and roll, how freely can our legs tangle and hook and loop and circle and stretch through the air, in how many ways can we twist this double-bodied Mobius strip, how many orientations, relationships, angles can our two bodies assume in relation to each other – without ever losing touch, without losing contact, still riding that cushion, that microscopic sliver of space between us, that Ångstrom-thin breach over which the nervous impulses leap and plunge and cross-stitch us together. In this twisty turny labyrinth his body is my ball of string, my trail of breadcrumbs in this dense and threatening forest. With a swoopy surge of momentum, he sends me forward into a sudden and dynamic cross and, for a second, I detach from him and I feel an instant, acute pang of disappointment. The ball we kept aloft for so many rallies has fallen to the ground; the house of cards has collapsed; the taboo word has been spoken. I strain forward and his right paw pulls me in the softest of actions and we are touching again.


This isn’t the smoothest of sailings. But it is a thrilling journey, weaving through an archipelago of islands. His body feels like pure energy: velocity, momentum, acceleration. And I know that his ears are pricked, his eyes are narrowed keenly, his nose is sniffing the wind. My free leg makes its lightning sketches on the air, trying to capture the scenes as they pass, the shifting landscapes of our spiral journey, writes its somatic love letter on running water, plays its unheard melodies from an invisible score. And I trust that he will know every single time. I don’t have to ask permission, I don’t have to wonder if he can guess that I want to capture this shot and this one. I know he will drop anchor at every spot where I want to set up my muscly-fatty-bony easel of leg and foot, to paint my somatic impressions, to create my ephemeral sketches. And when we go ashore to explore, the isle is full of noises. He bounds over the music like an overexcited puppy, chasing it, playing with it, sniffing at it, gnawing it and I run in little yapping circles round him – a Jack Russell to his Saint Bernard – scent-marking every tree and bush with glee. I don’t have to wait to see if he will follow me around this bend, across this heath and through this forest. I just put my nose to the ground and follow the scent trail and I know he will too. I feel understood. And free.

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