My childhood home – indeed, still the home of my parents – was on a typical red-brick Lancashire terrace that fronted a main road. Between the houses and the terrace behind was a wide alley, known (in the way that small children name everything in their immediate world, no matter how inconsequential or small) as “The Backs.”
I can’t remember how old I was – certainly no older than eight. I was walking along The Backs, alone, between the walls and gates that bordered the small, paved yards behind the houses.
As I passed one wooden gate, slightly ajar, I heard the murmur of several voices. Human voices. This is quite important. Low, slightly urgent conversation.
Intrigued as to who was holding some kind of meeting in one of the back yards – and it did sound like at least half a dozen people – I cautiously pushed open the gate in that guileless way that small boys have.
There were dogs there, perhaps six or seven. The voices had stopped as I pushed the gate open. The dogs all looked at me, some of them casting glances over their shoulders.
Suddenly terrified, I ran away. Not terrified by the dogs, because I’d grown up around dogs all my life.
Terrified because I knew that I’d heard human voices, and there were no people there. Just dogs.
The dogs chased me, and we all flowed down The Backs, me in what felt like a sea of yapping dogs. I was crying and shouting until I got to my own back gate and the dogs ran on.
This is an utterly true story. I remain convinced those dogs were talking in human voices. I have no idea what they were talking about.
I was upset when I went into my house and my parents quite naturally wanted to know why. I told them about the dogs, not that they’d been talking, just that a pack of dogs had run at me. I hadn’t been bitten but I was very shook up.
Then, for reasons which escape me, I said one of the dogs was Albert.
I have no idea now if Albert was really among the dogs. I don’t think he was. Albert was a very old dog who belonged to a man in the street behind ours who lived alone. His name – in the same way that the alley was known as The Backs – was Tin Can Tommy. This was based on the fact that once when a group of kids went from house to house asking if there was any firewood for Bonfire Night he allegedly said, “No, but there are a load of tin cans in my yard you can have.”
Tin Can Tommy seemed sinister to us, but he was probably just a lonely old man. Albert was his constant companion, and generally did nothing but sit around outside Tin Can Tommy’s house.
I still have no idea why I said Albert was among the dogs that ran at me from the yard. But my parents went around to Tin Can Tommy and told him what I’d said, that Albert had pretty much attacked me.
He was aghast, and said that Albert had been with him all day.
Maybe because I knew the impossibility of dogs talking, and needed to say something, anything, I stuck to my guns. I said Albert had gone for me.
I don’t know what happened next. Nothing, as far as I know. If that had happened today Albert would probably have been destroyed.
Thank God this was the Seventies.
Another dog which wasn’t part of the talking dogs gang was a huge, shaggy haired golden retriever. We never knew its name, but we steered clear of it. It roamed the streets and would trap unwary children if they were alone. It would force them into a corner and leap up, putting its front paws on their shoulders. It was a very big dog, bigger than a kid when on its hind legs.
Then it would start to deliriously hump them.
We called it The Bumming Dog. No-one liked The Bumming Dog. I once saw it at the top of an avenue on a baking hot, dusty, summer holiday day and took a huge diversion to avoid going near it.
Once, though, The Bumming Dog sneaked up on me while I was playing alone. I was hunched over a drain in the gutter, dropping a length of string weighted with stones to try to plumb the depths of the sewer, when I felt two big paws suddenly clamp themselves on my shoulders.
I knew it was The Bumming Dog, and I ran like the wind, the dog barking happily behind me, until I got home.
All these stories about dogs are true. I still like dogs. But now I’m grown up I have cats.
I’ve no doubt that cats talk, but at least they don’t do it while I’m listening.