As a teenager, before I grew a critical faculty, I was unashamedly seduced by that old ham, Anthony Newley, talking to the animals in Dr. Dolittle. I now know that any Irishman whispering anything in my ear could get the animal in me to do anything at all, at all, at all. But ‘dat’s buoy de buoy, me little darlins’ (Stop it, Gill!), the point is that it’s not what you say it’s the way that you say it.
When we had our old dog Chen we used to amuse ourselves saying “good boy” in a “bad boy” voice and then the reverse, which probably made a knitted dishcloth of his neural pathways, but it proved the point. He’d roll over on his back in ecstasy as we rubbed his tummy, crooning, “you’re a naughty boy, Chen” in a loving and caressing tone.
It’s got to the point with Hector that I hardly use real words at all. For instance, he has this deviant habit of immediately taking over my spot on the sofa whenever I get up to make a cup of tea. I used to make a big Goldilocks type play of it when I got back. “Excuse me! Is someone sitting in my place?” Now, all I have to do is put my hands on my hips and utter one of my expanding repertoire of noises and he shuffles along.
Body language obviously plays a big part. In fact, the art of dog-speak requires an operatically exaggerated level of vocal and physical performance. At the moment I am teaching Hector to catch things in mid-air. It’s a kind of keep-him-happy-during-Coronation-Street thing. And I behave like a one-woman football crowd. When he catches the ball I jump up out of my seat, I punch the air, I shout yay, whoop, and wave my arms about. And if he drops it I can do that huge collective wail of disappointment too. Words, schmurds, who needs ’em?
There is the universal language of disgust as well. “Uggh!”, “Blearghh!” and “Arrgh!” are particularly useful for either expressing dismay at something he has already done or warning him off doing something in the first place.
Not to mention “Grretonowdavit”, for really extreme situations. This ‘word’ was invented by my father (yours too?) when my sisters and I used to be so bold as to knock on the bathroom door when he was in there. It is a sound that seems to emanate from the very bowels of the earth. And it’s effective meaning – “Scarper. Now. Or else you’re for it” – does no justice to it’s primal power as an utterance.
But Hector is way ahead of me in this game. In the mornings I take a cafetiere and my iPad back to bed to read the papers online. After about half an hour, Hector always does this massive noisy “have you forgotton walkies” yawn. And I like to play along; “Hmm. I wonder what the time is? Could it be… no… is it? Yes, I think it is the time for wa..”
What I had not realised is that prior to this performance I, apparently, draw in a long preparatory oratorical breath. I know it now because, yesterday, I began to inhale and he was off the bed, down the stairs and sitting by the back door before I could even say, “Hmm”. Talk about finishing my sentences for me! We are practically the same being.
And whereas even a month ago I might have used partially intelligible sentences like, “what are you up to now, you silly doggit”, now I find myself just going, “waddawaddawaddawadda”. It’s become a fully-fledged private language, a seamless incantatory riff of endearment and expletive and I hardly draw breath all day long.
I think I should be studied by a feminist linguistic theorist. For 85% of every day, I am alone (except for Hector). This means that I am free; from observation, convention, polite social self-editing and a great deal more inhibitory nonsense. And I really don’t believe that I have regressed into an infantile pre-verbal babbling gaga-dom. I think I have advanced; into a post-verbally expressive state of flowing female purity and bliss.
OK. It’s been a long hard winter. I might be going just a tiny bit stir-crazy. But Hector knows what I am on about. Don’t you, Hector, you snuffleooffleawfuloffalus…