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Encounters of the Dog-Walking Kind

I HAVE no idea of his name. That's the way it is with people you meet when walking the dog....

Over the years, a degree of acquaintance can develop that isn't exactly full-flown friendship; but it isn't exactly casual either. At its heart lies a remarkable ingredient. It might be called "encounter without strings." I quite like that.

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With others who are also out to walk their dogs, both of you know that your main purpose is defined. Encounter is secondary. "Did you meet anyone?" my wife asks, almost automatically, when I return.

It is quickly understood that each dog walker is bent on the efficient performance of a necessary routine, and among dog walkers all that is called for, by mutual but unspoken settlement, is a wave and smile.

That's the way it is with the doctor's wife who strides along the top path through the long grass every morning with at least five black and blond Labrador retrievers. I privately call this mayhemic lava-flow of somewhat indistinguishable canines "the pack." They tumble out the back of the family Volvo at the top of the "Cunyon," as this wild, unkempt space is known, and charge off en masse. Hunting dogs by heritage, they are probably looking for grouse or pheasants. But dogs are astonishingly satisfied with life. Since there is not the slightest chance of game appearing in this urban space, you might expect them to be disappointed. However, they show no signs of frustration at their lot. Instead they appear to be having a wonderfully rambunctuous time, every morning, 365 days a year.

This pleasant woman is frequently joined by a short- haired young woman with a distinctive brown Labrador. (It's the brown of a certain kind of outdated gumboot.) I feel sure these women are friends who also meet in their homes. They always seem deep in discussion, I assume about children, the tennis club, their spouses, ... their dogs.

We smile and wave - they from behind bushes of willow and gorse that grow bigger by the year, I, with only one mutt, from the tarmac pathway below them that parallels the noisy motorway even farther down the hill.

Only on the worst days do I take the dog in the opposite direction to Maxwell Park. The dog's liking of this park amounts to adoration. I presume this has to do with his interest in "encounter without strings," for there are about 120 dogs with or without owners that seem to be permanently wandering about this place of clipped hollies, concrete-edged boating pond, and children's play area. The park's acute olfactory sensations have our mutt bewildered by choice.

But there is something tame about this park that I don't like. The dog-walkers of Maxwell Park are a different breed from we sturdier, more heroic types that take the Cunyon in our stride; they are cozier, more clubby, and may even think that this overtended, building-sheltered parkland is "countryside" of some sort. It ain't. It's about as close to indoors as you can get outdoors. It's for softies. They stroll rather than walk, and they often form into slow-moving gaggles. Sometimes they even stop, stan d, and talk.

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The Cunyonites never stop. For one thing it's often far too windy and cold to allow for that. The Cunyon is exposed, with a large sky above it. Its tallest tree is 15 feet, a rather scraggy and lonely oak at that. Most of the Cunyonites do not visit it only because it is next to their houses. For some it isn't even nearby. Quite a few drive to it, park, walk, and return to the car. Among them is the lady with an Austrian accent, and her large, affable husband who for a long time I pigeonholed as a retire d policeman, but who is actually some sort of college lecturer, and their Alsatian Shepherd "Jade," who is profoundly fond of our dog. I walk east (toward the dawn in winter), they walk west. In passing we talk dogs and lately conservation (the money-hungry planners of the region are actively thinking of building houses on the Cunyon).

The ebullient Englishman with the two cairns walks the same way as I, but by the upper path, circling to the tarmac path and thus sometimes meeting me head on. He is highly energetic. Throws out a quick witticism or observation. Can be slightly more expansive if just back from golfing or fishing. Strides on, as his dog hovers around his heels.

The gentleman I secretly call "the Butcher he is heavy set and has a strong red face - believes, mystically, that I know who he is. I don't, but I don't let him know that. His feelings might be hurt. I've never seen him in a kilt, but he'd look himself in the full regalia, I don't doubt.

The incongruity, though, is that while you might imagine him walking a wolfhound, he actually walks a small, carefully clipped, rather nervous white miniature poodle decked out in a red coat. This poodle does not like our dog. Our dog simply doesn't notice him.

The Butcher always has news about himself to impart. "Had a rough night last night!" Or, "Good morning! Up till all hours with old friends." Or, m feeling a lot better now."

I say "Good, that's good," or "Oh dear," as befits. He seems to feel I serve.

Recently I saw him five mornings in a row. "There's that man again!" he must have said. Then we won't see each other for about three months. Neither of us, I suspect, times the walks to the minute.

But it is the man without a dog that I shall probably remember most. I don't know his name. I think he may well be a bachelor, or at least a widower. He never talks about close relations. I'm sure he lives alone, modestly I think.

He has a white baseball cap. And a vivaciously colorful and enormous golfing umbrella that he seems to sport for cheerfulness rather than protection. He is my ultimately cheerful encounter. Coming up behind him to overtake (he walks my way), he doesn't know I am there until I speak. "Good morning! How are you today?" Then his face crinkles and lights up. "Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Marvellous. Pom pom pom. Tremendous."

It might be one of those drizzling, cold-biting days, gray all over, as if the sun had retired hurt. Your face would be smitten.

"It's a wonderful day," he announces. "Tremendous. This is the best sort of weather. I love it. Suits me down to the ground. Oils the wheels somehow. Gets me going. Reaches the parts that nothing else can. Lovely. Mmmm. My kind of day. Pom pom. Marvellous. Wonderful."

He walks very slowly indeed.

Words comes to me (courtesy of Lewis Carroll in parody-mood):

"You are old Father William/ The young man said/ And your hair has become very white/ And yet you incessantly stand on your head/ Do you think at your age it is right?"

So I think I'll call him Father William - though I haven't seen him stand on his head and I have no idea if he has children. But there is something Father William-ish about his jaunty, intrepid view of things. For a start nothing ever seems to prevent him from going for his walk. The Cunyon is the place for him, although I have also caught sight of him quite unexpectedly in a number of different places: crossing the road down by Pollock Park, stomping along past Haggs Castle, down on Dumbreck. I think he

may habitually leave his house and, very slowly, walk all day.

You can't be in a hurry with him. He would bend your ear all morning if you gave him a chance. He remembers clearly when there were larks flying high above the Cunyon and singing their throats out. He can remember cows grazing here. He knew the people who originally owned the gigantic Edwardian mansion silhouetted on the hill.

He always has some new bit of local knowledge to impart. "The man who built that modern house up on Hamilton Avenue - he was a millionaire you know - he hadn't finished building it before his wife got up and left him, then he died, you know, and then the house was bought by the fellow who lives in it now. He's got any number of daughters. Well, that millionaire, you know, he was my cousin. Of course he'd never own me. Oh no! Him in his Rolls. He was a real eccentric you know. Built a fallout shelter unde r that house. Oh yes." He gazes up at the sky. "I remember when there were larks singing here...."

He'd talk forever. I discovered eventually that if I apologized and said I had to get back to work, "On you go!" he'd chuckle, "on you go. Don't you let me hold you back!"

When I last caught up with him along the path, he said "I can't see much, you know. I remember..." (he paused and looked at the sky) "... when there were larks up there, high up, singing .... Wonderful."

I haven't encountered Father William for, well, months now. He used to speak jokingly but frankly about how he wouldn't care if such and such a thing happened in the future. "I won't be here to see it!" he'd say, chuckling enthusiastically. Once before he disappeared for quite a while. And, suddenly, there he was again. Oddly, I hadn't really noticed his absence until that moment. I felt pleased to see him again. He'd been well cared for by the nurses, he told me. "Wonderful."

You're a naughty old man!' they'd tell me. As if I could be! Wonderful!" He guffawed into the rain. "Let me tell you one of the stories one of them told me!" It was nice to have him back.

Maybe this time, too...? Maybe.

One thing I'm sure of, though: He hasn't taken to walking in Maxwell Park. Not him. Once a Cunyon man, always a Cunyon man.

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