Hanging Up The Harness

Trudy's harness 2008 - 2013

Trudy’s harness 2008 – 2013

I have had my guide dog Trudy (AKA The Hereford Hoover) for just over five years, and we’ve reached the time that I’ve been dreading most – her official retirement.

When Trudy bounced into my life I was living in a residential home and had got used to the fact that I would probably be there forever.  I rarely went out on my own, and feared strangers to the extent that I could not tolerate busy streets or crowded rooms.  I spent most of my time indoors listening to music or the radio.  The big wide world was virtually inaccessible to me.

Of course the furry whirlwind that filled my small room in May 2008 changed all that.  Time for a cliché – it really was love at first sight.  I knew Trudy was special.  I knew she would radically change my life.  It was breathtaking.  Three days after that momentous first meeting we began our four weeks training together, and life has never been the same since.

Goodrich Castle 2011

Goodrich Castle 2011

Less than two years after training with Trudy I moved into my own flat and immersed myself in a new life.  With Trudy’s help I overcame my fear of people and trained as a volunteer Speaker for Guide Dogs.  Sometimes I wonder if I am the same person when I give a talk to an audience.  I remember the me who refused to go into a room if there were more than two people in it.

The fantastic Fownhope Cubs 2012

The fantastic Fownhope Cubs 2012

Before I had even met Trudy I was told that she was a stubborn dog who loved her food.  I had no concept of the Hereford Hoover then.  Trudy’s trademark is her pinkish brown snout, glued to the ground wherever she goes, sniffing, snorting, and snuffling her way forward.  IMG_3627There has been countless occasions where the Hoover has been offered cleaning jobs in various public buildings.  (And as many where she has narrowly escaped being ordered off the premises).  But despite her penchant for hoovering, Trudy was always a first-class guide dog.  She has guided me to Scotland, London, Devon, Essex and all over the West Midlands.  Together we have mastered ferries, trains, buses, trams, the London Tube and even a carousel in Hereford High Town at Christmas.  Before I met Trudy, I would have preferred to die than go anywhere via public transport.  (And I definitely never would have tried the carousel!)

Trudy testing the water at Teignmouth, Devon

Trudy testing the water at Teignmouth, Devon

Trudy stopped walking in harness about three months ago, but is due to retire officially next week.  Her guide dog harness will be taken away for good.

Five years ago I never envisaged the emotional turmoil this would throw me into.  A guide dog provides so much emotional and practical support that as a team you begin to function as one being.  Picking up the harness and fastening the buckle under Trudy’s stomach is second nature to me.  We just used to get up and go out.  Being out and about with a guide dog is a real joy.  I was forever finding reasons to go out with Trudy just to experience the unbroken communication between us.

IMG_3606

I loved the feel of her body bobbing up and down under the harness, the different signals she used to give me through the harness handle as we explored the streets of Hereford, and her sneaky attempts to procure food from the pavements wherever we went.  Hoovering aside, I knew that I could trust Trudy with my life.  The trust between us is mutual and it unites us.  In her guide dog heyday Trudy was a keen worker and would always fly into her harness (quite literally!).  She used to cock her head as if to ask me what our plans were for the day.  No two days were ever the same.  One day we could be in Worcester, the next in the park, the next on a coach to London and the next in the theatre.  (I regret to say that Trudy often graced musical performances with her own vocal arrangements, so I always made sure we were right at the back near the exit!)

In the River Wye

In the River Wye

Go Walkies Fundraiser 2012

Go Walkies Fundraiser 2012

Reflecting over the past five years brings home to me how much Trudy has transformed my life.  In 2010 she was runner-up in the Life Changing category of the Guide Dog of the Year Awards, and in 2011 she won the Life Changing category.  The 2011 award was in recognition for Trudy’s role in helping me to cope with Breast Cancer.  She unquestionably speeded up my physical and emotional recovery.  IMG_3621

Trudy is notoriously inappropriate on official occasions.  She nearly ruined the photo shoot in the 2010 ceremony when she dived to retrieve an apple stalk and refused to drop it.  And far worse, when we met the Duke of Edinburgh last year during the Royal visit to Hereford, she stuck her snout inside his raincoat to sniff a certain part of his anatomy…  Less said of that the better.  (For the curious among you, he remarked: “Something must smell nice in there!”.)

Our precious moment of un-glory.

Diamond Day 2012 (notice the approaching snout...)

Diamond Day 2012 (notice the approaching snout…)

It’s very hard to acknowledge the end of an era with such a character as the Hereford Hoover.  Trudy is not quite ten, and probably could have continued as a guide dog for longer had she not effectively retired herself.  About a year ago I began to notice subtle changes in her demeanour when we were out together.  She seemed fed up, and became more and more distracted.  She started meandering instead of walking in straight lines, and frequently led me up the garden path (in fact every garden path in the street!). I got the distinct impression that she was no longer enjoying walking in harness.  Eventually this was confirmed when she lay down in the middle of the pavement on strike.  (Not once, but three times on three separate walks!)  A guide dog on strike needs to be listened to.IMG_3596

So three months ago I decided to stop taking her out on harness.  Since then Trudy has found her inner puppy, and bounces through the park revelling in her well-earned freedom.  I know I have made the right decision.

Running through thawing snow in Queenswood Arboritum

Running through thawing snow in Queenswood Arboritum

But although Trudy is benefiting from the redundant harness, I am finding our new way of life quite difficult.  The guide dog harness is a freedom ticket, and without it I have lost a lot of confidence.  I still have my lovely dog and she gives me so much in the way of affection, humour and companionship.  But our roaming area has shrunk from UK unlimited to a small corner of Hereford.

The Viewpoint, Aylestone Park

The Viewpoint, Aylestone Park

I am reasonably competent at using a long cane but this way of getting around ignites my old fears and anxieties about going out.  I find using a long cane quite an ordeal, and it makes me incredibly nervous.  After being dependent on a guide dog a long cane seems clumsy and lonely.  I have tried taking Trudy with me on my various practise expeditions.  It is better than being out on my own, but the slow walking speed and numerous crashes into bins, bollards and boards continue to put me off.  In addition (and this may sound ridiculous) relying on a long cane is a constant reminder to me that I cannot see, whereas walking with a guide dog enables me to forget it.  So my current solution is to go to the park every day with Trudy, but nowhere else.  And after five years of freedom and increasing confidence, this is a set-back.  If you imagine someone who has been used to walking with a prosthetic leg suddenly losing that leg and having to rely on crutches – that is how I feel without a working guide dog.  Thankfully I still have Trudy, and she has prevented me from becoming a recluse.IMG_3613

And that brings me onto the pivotal question.  What next?  This is the question that has caused me untold agonies.  My first decision was to keep Trudy as a pet and train with a new guide dog.  Guide Dogs have been very supportive and in March they loaned me a dog for a week to see how I would manage with two dogs.  The week went well and I coped.

But I knew deep down that I would not be able to sustain it.  When you have a guide dog on harness you’re not allowed to walk another dog at the same time.  I tried to imagine myself on a really bad day where I

IMG_3617struggle to make it out of bed.  Could I honestly say that I would be able to go out and about with the guide dog and then come back and take Trudy to the park?  There are days when I just manage to take Trudy out to the grass and then to the park gate where I let her off the lead.  With a young guide dog raring to go, and Trudy needing and deserving a quality retirement, I know the pressure would get to me eventually.  Not only that, I remember so clearly my first year with Trudy.  The first year in a new partnership takes every ounce of time, patience, energy and determination.  The more I thought about it, the more I realised that it would not be fair on either Trudy or the new guide dog to have the two of them.

Sock Thief (Not yet rehabilitated)

Sock Thief (Not yet rehabilitated)

So the reluctant decision I have had to make is that when the right guide dog is found for me Trudy will go to live with a friend in Hereford.  Subject to approval by Guide Dogs, this would be a brilliant compromise.  Trudy will have a fantastic retirement with people she knows and loves.  I will still have contact with my Hereford Hoover, whilst benefiting from having a guide dog to help me fulfil my remaining dreams.  This way Trudy and I will both be winners.  Someone advised me recently to imagine that Trudy is going off to University rather than leaving for good.  (Look out St. John’s College, Oxford!).  Bizarre as it may seem, this has helped me with the heartache.  Trudy will still be a huge part of my life.

Pawprints in the sand

Paw prints in the sand

In the meantime, Hoover and I are spending some quality time together and I have no regrets about her retiring.  I have my fingers crossed that my new guide dog will be an anti-establishment, rule-bending and reliably subversive canine with a character to rival the Hereford Hoover.  As Miranda Hart might say; “Such fun”.

Crafty Smile

Crafty Smile

Trudy mesmorised by Ghosty the Morrisman

Trudy mesmorised by Ghosty the Morris-man

Overseeing the excavation at Studmarsh, 2012

Overseeing the excavation at Studmarsh, 2012

Fundraising at Tesco 2012
Fundraising at Tesco 2012

To find out more about Guide Dogs for the Blind, please click here: http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/scarlett3/?gclid=CI_KgorL9bcCFfLHtAodYyYAqw

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My Bridget Jones Day

Yes, another Monday has almost ventured into the night .  The mop bucket stands askew in Clairetrude’s Corner, brimming with soapy water.

While the mop itself is being searched for, I shall tell my tale.  After a weekend divided between clutching my stomach and lying on the sofa (UTI strikes again!) I woke up this morning and realised that I was not actually going to die.  So I put away my “IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH” box, and took down all the arrows I’d stuck on the wall pointing to Trudy’s food supply.  Being embarrassed is not a good start to the week, so I busily spruced up the lounge to get rid of any lingering “sick room” atmosphere.  Lemongrass oil with a dash of peppermint quickly freshened it up.

The date in my diary did not bode well.  An afternoon appointment with the physiotherapist at my GP Surgery.  It did not help that I could not quite remember why this appointment had been booked.  It was made months ago, when I was experiencing general post-cancer malaise and struggling with my aching body.  I suppose I still ache, but who in the other-side-of-40 group doesn’t?

Fearing the scary receptionist who guards the Surgery, I did not dare to cancel this sought-after appointment.  That’s why just after 1.30pm I was sitting in the waiting room stroking Trudy.  I have an unfortunate habit of stroking Trudy’s head repeatedly when I’m nervous – it’s almost like someone tapping a table with the tip of a biro.  Trudy takes it like a stoical Labrador.  But at the point where I hear the tune of “The Antiques Roadshow” drumming out of my fingers, then I know I have to leave poor Trudy alone and clasp my hands together like a Victorian governess.

Here begins my Bridget Jones experience.  I was expecting the usual – being told to lie on a bed or couch while the physiotherapist prodded my back etc.  Oh if it were that simple!    I had to stand there – upright – dressed only in my vest and knickers.  Yes, you did read that correctly.  There I was, with no blanket or curtain to give me a sense of modesty, just rooted to the spot wondering “Why?”  Even the unsmiling Metal Mama who has featured previously in my Blog, had the sensitivity to screen me from the vastness of the examination room.  I cursed the cheese and onion pastie I’d eaten last Wednesday, and I cursed my brain for being conscious as I wondered which knickers I was actually wearing.  I just stood there and prayed they weren’t the green ones which I’d found in Trudy’s bed last week.   

Even imagining I was a Bridget Jones or Miranda Hart did not help.  I was me, alone with my intense cringing thoughts.  Aware of my bodily imperfections, mindful of my potholes and dimples and just wishing to God that I could get the hell out of that room!  There was no audience to laugh with me or at me, just me and a slightly bemused Trudy standing before a physiotherapist.  I could not see a funny side.  Trudy could, for she was wagging her tail delightedly, dancing round me like a little elf.  No sense of occasion that one.

It did cross my mind to assume a Bridget Jones stance or try Miranda’s ungainly mannerisms.  But I realised how unaccomplished I was.  I could not utilise my asymmetrical, unsightly self  for comedy – not while I was standing there in my vest and knickers.  I could not even muster the right sounds to speak, let alone laugh.  If I was confident I would have refused to obey the orders of the physiotherapist.  Somehow it made it worse that she too was a woman, for she ought to have managed a glimmer of sensitivity.

But here I am sitting cradling my laptop.  The ordeal is over – until my next appointment (if I decide to attend).  Despite the raw embarrassment which makes me groan as I write, I am almost able to  laugh at the  experience (through somewhat gritted teeth).  I never expected to reinvent the baneful PE lessons of my youth (remember the navy blue knickers and gym shirts?) in a physiotherapist’s room in 2012!

Once again I find myself marvelling at Trudy and her total lack of inhibitions.  That really is true freedom, having no sense of bodily shame or embarrassment.  (Just to reassure those who know Trudy’s habits, I’m not about to lie sprawled out on the floor with my legs akimbo – that’s a Labrador’s prerogative!).

The mop has now been located, the bucket has been fetched, and Clairetrude’s Corner is closed for the night while cleaning is in progress.

 

Odd Talk – Beano’s Mummy

“Would mummy like a cup of tea?”

That was the question old Mrs Baxter asked Beano.  Beano was a great lolloping Retriever with a huge brush of a tail.

Beano’s mummy, AKA Harriet, sat a little awkwardly on the sofa playing with a ballpoint pen.

“Would mummy like a cup of tea Beano Weano?”

The question came again, this time with greater emphasis on the word “tea” which was drawn out into a trailing “eeeee”.

Beano’s mummy cleared her throat and said in a small voice that was not her own. “Yes, I think she would please Mrs Baxter.”

Mrs Baxter cooed and rolled up Beano’s ears into unnatural tubular shapes.

“Ah – would she?  And would mummy like sugar?”

There was a pause.  Not entirely silent due to the slopping noise which Beano’s tongue was making as it licked Mrs Baxter’s hand.

Mrs Baxter opened her mouth to ask Beano the sugar question again, but Beano’s mummy dived in with a slightly-too-loud “No thank you mummy – er, Mrs Baxter.”

“Ah”, sighed Mrs Baxter.

Beano’s mummy ferociously fidgeted with the ballpoint pen and tensed as the lid snapped off and flew across the room.

“What’s mummy up to?” Mrs Baxter asked Beano with exaggerated impatience.  “What’s your silly old mummy up to eh?”

“Sorry,” mumbled Beano’s mummy, reddening.

Beano gave his mummy a look of disgust, and she tried to signal to him that it was time to go.

An hour later none of them had moved.  Mrs Baxter held command from inside the walls of her upright chair.  Beano was lying nonchalantly on the floor.  Beano’s mummy was pinned to the sofa in an apparent catatonic state.

Suddenly Mrs Baxter’s ice-cracking voice boomed,   “Beano, does mummy need to use the bathroom?”

Even the air jumped out of its skin.  Beano’s mummy spluttered out the remains of her cold tea.  She stood up and pulled her skirt into shape.  She was flustered.

“Beano my dear”, she said hurriedly.  “Shall we let Mrs Baxter watch Strictly?   It started five minutes ago!”

“Say bye bye to Auntie Miriam Beano,” said Mrs Baxter kissing the Retriever repeatedly on his snout.  He turned away and fixed his eyes on the empty fruit bowl.

Beano’s mummy was at the front door.  She felt old Mrs Baxter behind her and half-turned with a broad smile at the ready.

“Come again soon love”, whispered Mrs Baxter.  “We always put the world to right don’t we.  I do so love our chats.”

“So do we, “ replied Beano’s mummy, tugging at the Retriever’s ear.

 

 

A Basket of Toy Amputees

All dogs have their favourite toys, but unfortunately these toys are the ones whose lives are destined to be short and painful.  They must endure being tugged, chewed,  disemboweled and ultimately decapitated or mortally wounded.   Some manage to escape into the depths of the dog’s bed or under the fridge, but even these are eventually sniffed out to meet their fate.  It is never play time for a dog’s toy. 

When I trained with Trudy, my Guide dog Instructor warned of the dangers of giving dogs soft toys because their inner stuffing can potentially choke a dog.   Likewise if a squeaker from a toy becomes lodged in your dog’s throat it can be fatal.

I took note of my Instructor’s advice and endeavoured not to buy Trudy any soft or squeaky toys.  But Trudy is a seasoned thief, and it wasn’t long before I caught her stealing my own cuddly toys from the bedroom.  (Yes, I do love teddy bears, and frogs, and beanies..!).    My old favourites began to lose the shine on their fur and to develop a slightly bedraggled, manky appearance.  Occasionally I would discover one of them lying dead in another room.   In the end I decided that I would buy Trudy a couple of soft toys to play with under supervision.

Three and a half years later I have some gruesome scenes imprinted on my memory.  Last Summer for example I bought a large dog-shaped doorstop. One morning I was shocked to discover that Trudy had blinded the dog and totally defaced its snout.   I have had to remove it from my lounge because it is too disturbing.  Its empty eyes and ripped snout speak of dastardly deeds.  Was Trudy ensuring that the doorstop dog would never take her place as my Guide dog?!  Suffice to say that the motives of Labradors are not always clear-cut.

In addition to the eye-gauging incident there have been numerous spontaneous massacres resulting in limbs and heads strewn all over the floor.   Wads of stuffing have appeared in the most unlikely places.  Eyes, ears and tails are frequently left abandoned in the hallway.  Many toys have ended their sad lives in the bin.   But there are some characters which have been consigned to the Sick Room, AKA “The Invalid Box”.  These are the all-time favourites which have treasured memories embedded in their remaining body parts, and which I am unable to throw away.  The Invalid Box is a very macabre collection indeed.  Several of Trudy’s “Invalids” are in fact headless, and many are just a torso.   

Trudy’s Invalid Box is now bursting at the seams.  With this in mind I have reached a momentous decision.  I have decided to undertake a mammoth project to repair those Invalids which have enough body mass to tolerate a needle and thread.  I am hoping that Trudy’s excitement at being reunited with some of her loved-ones will overcome her critical eye – for the truth is I cannot sew to save my life.   In fact, I cannot even thread a needle.  But with the help of the RNIB shop (from which I’ve  purchased an automatic needle-threader), Amazon and Google,  I have high hopes.

Some of the torsos may find themselves attached to different limbs from before, and some may even end up with more limbs than they started with.  But Trudy (fingers crossed!) will be gobsmacked to see the return of such legends as Myrtle the Turtle  (the prize she won  at the Guide dog of the Year Awards 2011).  Myrtle unfortunately suffered multiple organ failure in the early Autumn.

If the Invalid Project is a success, I may progress to sewing up holes in my own skirts and darning my Trudyfied socks.  The days of asking friends to mend things for me could soon be a thing of the past.  That would really boost my confidence.  Who knows what lies ahead in the sewing sphere of 2012?  Watch this crafty space! 

 http://www.ne.nfb.org/node/576

  

Metal Mama and Me

Metal Mama is the affectionate name I have given to the mammogram machine in Hereford County Hospital.  Mysterious and rather noble, she maintains the throne in the X-ray room and no one has yet challenged her supremacy.   She is unyielding, dispassionate and cold to the touch. She stares in stoney silence as you stand before her, watching your every move with an air of feigned patience. Then  she takes your breasts in her metal hands and squashes them each in turn.  Occasionally, she’ll whisper to the radiologist that you have cancer.    So would you be surprised if I tell you that Metal Mama and I are as good as mates? 

When I first met up with her a year ago I did not know what to expect.  I did not know I had cancer, I did not know that despite Metal Mama attempting to crush my breasts I would not actually feel pain.  I went in to the palatial chamber fearful and naive.  Metal Mama did nothing to allay my anxieties, and in fact she may have made them more acute.  She was too shiny, too perfect, too supercilious by far.  And that metal gleam of hers highlighted my own mortality.  The fact that I had to remove my bra and T-shirt was a huge ordeal back then.  It did not occur to me that Metal Mama and her radiographer side-kicks have seen hundreds of shapes and sizes passing as women.  But there was so much I didn’t know then.  Almost exactly a year ago.

To be perfectly honest I was not relishing my reunion with Metal Mama today.  I remembered her hard stare, her cold grasp, her chilling verdict.  She held my fate in her steely hands, and she always will do.  I cannot think of her without some part of me shuddering.  Today I had my trusted  hound Trudy with me and she  accompanied me into Metal Mama’s chamber.  She had a sniff around the regal feet, but decided that the bin in the corner smelt more interesting so pitter-pattered off in that direction.  Thanks Trudy!  I  faced Metal Mama alone whilst The Hoover hoovered quietly nearby.  Unlike me, Metal Mama was no different from last year.  She was still iron-hard and ice-cold, no-nonsense and no-frills.  Yet as she was no longer a complete stranger I felt relatively at ease.  Today Metal Mama and I had an understanding. 

I smiled at the fact that today I was able to stand topless before Metal Mama without blushing scarlet.  When you have breast cancer, one thing you quickly learn is that you have to order your inhibitions to move aside and shut up.  I have learned to forget that it is me with no T-shirt on. Me automatically goes to the back of my head when I’m in a hospital environment.  Metal Mama could have told me that a year ago.

But it does not pay to be cocky.  Last year each X-ray courtesy of Metal Mama was painless (albeit slightly uncomfortable).  Today’s experience therefore came as a shock.  When Metal Mama clamped the breast which has undergone surgery and radiotherapy,  I nearly shot to the ceiling with the pain that sliced through me.  But it was short-lived.  Metal Mama’s hugs are never longer than about 30 seconds, thank God.     Four hugs (two on each breast) and she’s usually done with you.  And here came the second unwanted surprise of the day.  Metal Mama took my offer of friendship literally.  She spat out one of the X-ray images and called me back for one extra hug – the one that hurt most of all. 

Last year I received Metal Mama’s verdict the same day, as I was seeing the Consultant straight afterwards.  This time I have to wait between a week and ten days for the results.  It’s quite weird knowing that Metal Mama knows already if I’m clear of cancer or not.  She has my image imprinted on her mechanical brain.  I’d love to be able to meet her for a drink in Wetherspoon’s and get her to divulge the results after a triple Vodka.  Then Metal Mama might roll along Commercial Road spilling all her secrets throughout High Town.  I have a picture of her crashed out in a metal heap, turning up for work later with a thumping hangover and being fired for breaking the code of conduct.  But she’s far too professional.

Back to reality.  I’m all set for an impatient ten days, wondering what Metal Mama has seen and what she will tell.

Video of a mammogram http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mammogram/MM00639

Information about mammograms and breast cancer http://cancerhelp.cancerresearchuk.org/type/breast-cancer/about/screening/mammograms-in-breast-screening

Breast Cancer Care Charity http://www.breastcancercare.org.uk/

Defeat of the Gremlins: Just ask that Guide dog!

Guide dogs are adept at warding off gremlins, as I know from first-hand experience.  The gremlin who inhabits my flat is often at his most peevish in the early hours of the morning.  Trudy, whose criminal alias is The Hereford Hoover, is instantly awake the minute he pokes my eye to wake me up.  She bounces out of her wicker basket which is adjacent to my bed, grabs one of my slippers and whacks the gremlin out of my day.  It always works.

Even on the most drab and melancholy Monday mornings I can’t help chuckling at the gusto of my Guide dog.  I usually attempt to get back to sleep, but the wagging rudder thumps incessantly to remind me that I owe her one for chasing away the gremlin.  Once my arm is out of bed rolling up her Labrador ears into long tubes, sleep loses its appeal.  So at the point when Trudy’s warm, wet tongue slides over my hand I invariably get up.  Trudy is all fur and tail.  She wraps her paws round my feet, sprinting off as I grope around for the slipper which is nearly always still in her mouth.  I daren’t invoke the gremlin by checking the time – but it’s usually around 6 am by this point.  I’m still half-dazed, only just aware of a hot-breathing hound baiting me with my own slipper.  She pretends to lose interest, but each time I draw near she hares off again with her stolen booty.  After much hiding and seeking, pleading and grumbling, I finally reclaim my slipper – damp and crumpled after its encounter with a Labrador.

Fighting gremlins probably isn’t in Trudy’s job description, yet she is an expert.  She seems to sense when the insidious creature is lurking round the corner ready to ruin a morning or afternoon.   Up goes her tail, beating rapidly to ward off the malevolent spirit.  The climax of the ritual involves a complicated war-dance with Trudy wielding one of her toys above her head.   Her current favourite is a massive pink turtle called Myrtle.  Trudy won Myrtle at the Guide dog of the Year Awards and Myrtle is thankfully still intact with all her limbs attached.  Whenever the gremlin is about to steal my smile, Trudy grabs Myrtle and flies towards me snorting and panting.  Even if I’m not up for a tug of war game, Trudy charging towards me with Myrtle  hanging out of her mouth is guaranteed to make me laugh   Laughter is toxic to gremlins so my unwanted guest vanishes instantly.  One of Myrtle’s bonus features is that her tummy makes rude noises when it’s held in a certain way.  This feature has proved invaluable  in the war against gremlins.

You may be wondering about these gremlins.  I suspect there are many types and breeds skulking about in worldwide dwellings.  But the character who sneaks around in my flat is particularly destructive.  He tips over milk bottles, pokes me when I’m about to nod off in a chair, and sets off the smoke alarm when I’m really really hungry and just want a piece of toast….!  He pervades my mind and needles under my skin if he’s not dealt with in time.  Trudy will not tolerate him.  If he slips a morsel of despair into my lunch box she will take it out and replace it with a chewed sock.  I wouldn’t say it tastes much better, but it’s the thought that counts.  Chewed socks, stolen receipts, the entire contents of my bag – they are all brought in dribs and drabs to cheer me up.  One of the things I love about Labradors is that they never arrive on the scene empty-handed.  Even though Trudy’s presents are usually recycled socks, scraps of paper or stolen items from my laundry basket they are still presents from her to me.  The generosity of Labradors is unbeatable, and gremlins scarper at the sight of it.

Gremlins are intent on bringing gloom into your day, but Guide dogs are gremlin grabbers!  I really came to understand this when I was separated from Trudy at the start of my radiotherapy treatment.  After only two days without her I became aware that the nefarious gremlin inhabiting my flat had gathered a formidable army.  I was utterly defeated and could not function.  I did not even have any inclination to fight.  I knew that I needed Trudy back, so back home she came.  The moment she bounded through the door the gremlin legion lay down its arms and marched away.  They have not returned en masse since.

I think that most dogs are capable of being gremlin chasers, but as I’ve never lived with a pet dog I can’t be sure.  This got me thinking about stereotypes.  The Guide dog stereotype is a noble, obedient,, long-suffering dog with almost no will of its own.  As a Guide dog Trudy is exemplary, but thankfully she does not match the stereotype.  She can be noble – even supercilious at times when she spies a misbehaving pet dog who should know better (according to the Laws of Hound).  She can be obedient too when I really need her to be.  But she is so stubborn there are times when a battle of wills  determines the outcome of certain situations.  We have stand-offs, sit-downs and strikes in the oddest and most inappropriate places.    If Trudy had to wear a school tie she’d turn it inside out with the ends askew.  I’d almost certainly catch her smoking behind the bike shed with a can of lager in her free paw.  Yet she’d pass her exams and probably get into Oxford.  She’s that kind of “told you so” dog.

It makes me smile when I explain to audiences about the matching process of Guide dogs.  So much time and effort is put into matching the right dog with the right owner.  How did Worcester Guide dogs know I’m stubborn, love food and prefer to do my own thing?!  It concerns me that it might be obvious!  Being matched with a Guide dog is a bit like registering with a dating agency.  They pool your common denominators and mix up the rest, so at some point during your partnership you and your dog become one being.  I think this is what makes Guide dogs experts at chasing away gremlins.  Trudy knows before I do when something is amiss.  This means that the lone gremlin who wakes me up in the early hours does not stand a chance.  In fact I think Trudy is quite capable of chasing him away for good, but then I’d have a homeless gremlin on my conscience.

So next time you spy a Guide dog with a wagging tail and a glint of mischief in its eye, think of the gremlins it has probably chased away that day.  If your smile lasts for at least four seconds any gremlins you know may take a hike at the same time…..

Underground, overground…..

Not many people agree with me when I wax lyrical about the smell of the London Underground.  For me the combination of hot rubber, industrial detergent and all manner of human odours is strangely comforting.  Yes, I do like it.  What I struggle with is the fat slug of passengers clogging up every inch of space from the ticket barriers to the platforms.  Somehow you’re supposed to find a hole in the slug’s body and dive through it to the other side, as if your life depends on it.  If you happen to misjudge this move there’s a risk that you’ll get swallowed up into the slug’s huge digestive system and end up being spewed onto the wrong platform somewhere far away.  Timing is crucial when you’re negotiating the London Underground.  One false move and you find yourself being swept along in the wrong direction, feet flailing, arms flapping, heart sinking.
As a visually impaired person, dodging the giant human slug in the Underground is a heart attack in the making.  Last week when I attended the Guide dog of the Year Awards I had to face the beast head on.  Luckily I was accompanied by a travel-wise mate.  Having a savvy mate by your side is a fantastic help, but if you add a hoovering Guide dog and an overloaded rucksack with wheels that don’t wheel – the best made plans crumble into chaos.  My rucksack with the dodgy wheels was kindly adopted by my companion for the duration of our London trek.  All I had to do therefore, was to steer The Hoover.
We would have been fine had it not been for the aforementioned slug of tourists and commuters.  This giant beast wedged its great body between us numerous times, which left us frequently calling to each other desperate not to get separated forever.  Trying to listen for directions with a hoover-in-harness eyeballing every grain on the ground was no mean feat.  Our stress levels quickly peaked.  The effort of remaining calm whilst being swept away by a perpetually moving monster would test the nerves of the most accomplished traveller.  “Where are you?”  I’d call.  “Over here – in front of you!” was the disappearing answer, and we’d be lucky to reunite within the next five minutes.  We lost count of the number of times we had to hunt down an unoccupied space and simply “take stock”.
Another major bane was escalators.  Those massive metal mountains which move up and up and up…!  Guide dogs cannot travel on escalators because of the risk of their paws getting trapped, so every time we encountered an escalator we had to hunt for a London Transport staff member.  This was not straightforward.  When I lived in London in the early 1990’s there was no such thing as Help Points, so it was mere chance that my mate came across a circular white disc at Euston fitted with Help and Emergency buttons.
We didn’t expect any joy when she pressed the Help button, so when a disembodied voice answered our SOS call it was extremely heartening.  London Transport staff were mostly very helpful once we’d located the Help Points.  But there appeared to be no logical system as to their whereabouts, so searching for Help Points became a quest in itself every time we chanced upon a dreaded escalator.  And once the offending escalators were halted hundreds of steps needed climbing.  There was a moment at Oxford Circus when my companion sailed by on a parallel escalator (there has to be some perk for being the luggage carrier!), and I was seriously beginning to wane.  The steps seemed to be endless, and my legs were growing heavier by the second.  As she passed by she called out to me “Come on Claire!” and somehow I found a spurt of energy that I didn’t know I had.  I’m not sure if Trudy felt more tired than I did, but her front paws were definitely sagging by the time we made it to the top.  It might not have been so bad had we not had to repeat this exercise at least ten times!
On our second day we decided to be tourists and visit Buckingham Palace.  Green Park was possibly our trickiest tube station, but we did not know this when we hatched our plans over breakfast.  Puffing our guts out ascending Green Park’s stationary escalator might have seemed worthwhile had the sky not decided to empty its latrine bucket over our heads just as we exited the station.  Playing the tourist in London invariably gets you soaking wet – as we discovered the hard way.  London rain is hard, relentless, back-stabbing, rib-jabbing pain.  It  literally penetrated our bones as we traipsed through Green Park,  vaguely taking in the scene of mounted Police and majestic trees.  I decided to give Trudy the chance to have a free run despite the fact that we were almost drowning.  A group of excited Japanese tourists pelted past laughing at the force of the downpour.  We were unable to share their merriment.
Trudy was dashing about with the bells on her collar jingling in time to the rain.  She seemed oblivious to the cold shards of silver being hurled from the sky.  Herein lies the sorriest part of my tale.   Trudy used her freedom wisely and performed a “busy” on the grass as we neared Buckingham Palace.   I dutifully pulled a bag from my pocket in order to deposit her offering  in the nearest bin.  All the while the rain was continuing to assault our bodies and we were hunched over double.  I turned towards my rucksack with the dodgy wheels and expressed concern that it might look “unattended” while we were retrieving Trudy’s “busy”.  At this point I  wondered where the “busy” actually was, for it had seemingly disappeared.  In fact it had not disappeared at all – it was under my shoe.  This was quite possibly the lowest point of our London experience.  There was a poignant moment of despair and self-loathing,  but once my shoe had been washed in a series of puddles the hilarity of the situation took over.  Laughter is truly a great medicine.  Hence we were able to reach our destination, Buckingham Palace, where we lingered for about thirty seconds.  The rain was still venomous, so we decided to head back towards the shelter of Green Park station.
As we neared the station we came across a Marks and Spencer, and the prospect of a sandwich tempted us in.  Dripping pools of water onto the floor we took refuge behind a huge pillar in order to try to organise our sodden belongings.  Trudy, who was hoovering up crumbs,  shook her waterlogged fur all over a smartly dressed lady .  If that smartly dressed lady happens to be reading this, I apologise on behalf of my soggy hound.  Throughout the watery chaos we were  being watched by a store detective who must have labelled us  “suspicious persons” right from the moment we entered.  Against the odds, we did manage to buy a sandwich and that kept our spirits afloat as we headed back towards the mayhem of Green Park station.  Many escalators, steps, platforms, crowds and near-heart attacks later, we were sitting on the train at Paddington about to start our homeward journey.
Hereford and London are two vastly contrasting places.  When you’re in Hereford, London seems magical, exciting, buzzing, and alluring.  But once you actually hit that heaving hub of humans, the magic fades into unease, and slowly that unease changes to all-out panic.  After just 24 hours of city strife I was longing for the pure oxygen and grassy hills of Herefordshire.  Now as I sit at my desk I smile as I remember pouring over Tubeplanner early last week.  It is a great online resource for would-be Tube travellers, but memorising the stops on the Bakerloo line whilst sitting in your living room does NOT prepare you at all for the brutal reality of the London Underground.  Having said that, I have not ruled out another trip at some point in the future!