A MUSTER was going on next door. My plump mongrel yearned to take part. He was whining with desire, a strange keening sound, like bagpipes getting ready.
The neighbour was high on the hill and filling the valley with his shouting. In the days when he had a dog he would shout 'Way to go, dog,' at the dog. These days he doesn't have a dog and he was shouting 'Way to go, sheep' at the sheep. It seemed to work. Perhaps the sheep assumed there was still a dog. Maybe the power of suggestion was such that they even saw a dog. But whatever was going on in their heads, they were trooping quietly down the hill towards the yards.
At the foot of the hill stood a sort of curved funnel, which led to a gate which led to the yards. To the sheep it must have looked like the trap that it was, so it was here that they stopped, and here that they turned to face the descending neighbour and here that the possibility arose that they would rebel against human authority and charge back past the neighbour and thus undo all his excellent work and set to nought his resurrection of the ghost of his former dog in their simple skulls. So it was at this moment I chose to ask whether the plump mongrel and I might be of some service. I readily acknowledge that the plump mongrel isn't a sheepdog. But he is a dog, and any dog, if artfully positioned, can act as a deterrent to sheep.
'Can the plump dog and I be of some service to you, neighbour?' I shouted up the hill, doing my best to adopt a tone of friendly rural expertise such as an Amish farmer might employ when suggesting a barn-raising after evening prayers.
Living at the head of a steep valley I have got used to the way sound gets distorted, so I was not surprised when the neighbour's reply, reaching me on the morning breeze, sounded somewhere between a snort and a wry laugh. But though I couldn't make out his exact words, I was confident they hadn't included no.
'I'll just place the dog here to stop them breaking out,' I said a minute or two later as we arrived. 'Sit,' I said to the plump mongrel. He sat. I beamed at the neighbour, but he was concentrating on the sheep. And so, I couldn't help noticing, was the plump mongrel.
Ordinarily if we meet stock, the dog just looks at me and I say no in a gravelly tone and he doesn't. But this was different. Here was a mob of 50 ungulates all clustered together and all of them staring at him. It felt like a sort of challenge and it was clearly plucking atavistic strings. The genes of his remote forefathers were urging him to charge. Only the bonds of civilisation were holding him back. You could see the battle going on in the very flesh of his body. He quivered. He shook. He whined.
Many years ago at a school fete I ran a china stall. It consisted of a trestle table and several cartons of unwanted china. We placed items of china on the table and then rented cricket balls to men and boys for throwing at it. The stall proved extremely popular. We kept the best piece of china till last, a floral teapot. We placed it on its own in the centre of the table and auctioned the right to destroy it. The gentleman who won the auction - and he paid a sum that would surprise you - happened to be my dentist. It made me feel strangely uneasy.
Quite a crowd had gathered. The dentist took deliberate aim. There was silence. He threw. The ball hit the teapot smack on its flank. I remember noticing even as the teapot disintegrated that the shards flew in every possible direction of the compass and then some.
And, strange as it may seem, this was the memory that rose unbidden to my mind when the bonds of civilisation lost the battle with the genes of his remote forefathers and the plump mongrel charged into the mob of sheep.
And what with the dog barking, the sheep bleating, me shouting and the notorious local acoustics I didn't quite catch what it was that the neighbour shouted as the sheep stampeded past him and back up the steep hillside down which he had driven them, but I suspect he was congratulating the plump mongrel for having driven three of the 50 neatly into the yard.