Wednesday, 10 August 2011

My canine commuter buddy

Toby boards a train without a ticket and bounds onto a seat. I'm forced to have a word with him before we are banned from South West trains.

Three months into our marriage and my husband has left me.

He's gone north to start his new job, while I work out my notice down here in London before heading up to join him. I'm lodging with my very kind friends Ross and Claire, who happen to own a huge house amidst the beautiful Surrey countryside. I refer to my bedroom as being in the west wing, such is the vastness of the place. The manor is also very conveniently located next to an award-winning vineyard. Joy! Who knew you could make wine just outside the M25? It’s all I can do not to hope over the fence and run amok in the shop.

Last week, Toby was also lodging in the Surrey mansion with me, but because my landlords were working from home, and have no gate on their garden, I didn't want to lumber them with the pressure of looking after a very nosy dog. One sniff of a squirrel/cat/postman/flying insect and he'll turn all Littlest Hobo and wander off. Not very practical when you are mid-conference call.

So, thanks to my very understanding boss and colleagues, I took Toby to work with me all week. (Luckily he’s very chilled out and tends to just snooze under my desk all day when in the office. Thank god he has the bladder of an ox and never piddles indoors.)

The journey from the countryside to Waterloo takes an hour, so it’s a lot to ask of a little dog. But he coped marvellously. In fact, because he’s so nosy I think he absolutely loved it. All those new smells were doggy heaven and he would jump on my shoulder to watch the countryside whizzing past the window. (But only when no-one was sitting next to me – not everyone appreciates dog dribble on their shoulder.)

But during our week of commuting from the sticks, I noticed something magical happen. When Toby’s on a train, people smile.

If you live in London, or have ever visited, you'll know what a big deal that is. As I’ve ranted before, travelling through the capital is tough, no matter what mode of transport you choose. The unwritten rule is to keep your head down, make no eye contact and look out for number one. (i.e forget all basic manners and try shoulder barges, pushing and shoving to ensure you get from A to B.)

But with Toby it became a very different commute. Gone were the scowling, grumpy, pasty-grey faces. Instead I noticed people were smiling at Toby. And then at me. Their faces were literally lighting up. There would be giggles from business men, as he sprawled across their feet for a nap. Ladies with Blackberries would leap out of their skin when he pressed his cold nose on their bare calves – but they didn’t mind. They just wrinkled their noses and gazed adoringly at him.

Which I thought was very interesting, because I have witnessed very heated arguments between commuters when they are forced to have even the slightest bodily contact with each other. I've seen several epic rows stem from the accidentally brushing of a bag/laptop case/shopping against a leg. It seems commuters are appalled, shocked and disgusted by even the most minor contact from a complete stranger, but the furry muzzle of a small teddy-faced terrier on their leg is absolutely fine.

How Toby deals with a hot, crowded train. Stretch out but hide your head under a seat. If only I could get away with that

What really made me laugh was when I was forced to hop on a tube one day, and I had to carry Toby in my arms down an escalator. I noticed everyone on the opposite escalator going up smiling at us, and then a lady shouted across “Hello cute dog!”

People talking to each other on the tube? And they aren’t drunk?? Toby and I had broken the first rule of underground commuting. ‘Thou must not speak to fellow passengers unless asking them to move further down the carriage.’

This crazy conversation trend continued on the overground trains too. People would tell me he was cute and very well behaved. Or they would run over to me on a platform and delightedly inform me that their sister/mother/aunty had a dog just like him. Called Pickle. Or I’d get regular queries about his breed, his name and his age.

Of course it does help that Toby is the cutest dog on the planet – not that I am biased of course. But he is.

I tell you something though. That week of travel with Toby was the most pleasant travel experience of my entire 13 years in London. It makes such a difference when you are surrounded by smiling faces and happy people. Suddenly the dank, smelly, often sweltering journey became a lot more bearable when accompanied by funny little conversations and grins from complete strangers.

Toby certainly helped to break the ice when I found myself packed sardine-like into a delayed and tropically heated train full of pissed off commuters. When he stretches out and spreads his legs like a frog, you can’t help but laugh. And we all know laughing and smiling is contagious.

But alas, my furry travel companion couldn’t stay. As I’m already imposing on my lovely friends, I couldn’t expect them to share their palatial home with a dog too. They said they didn’t mind, but I’m sure for a non-dog owner the novelty may wear thin. Especially when he’s dribbling saliva on their carpet after holding his favourite ball in his mouth for too long.

So at the weekend I took him to my Mom’s house in Shropshire for his summer holiday, while I finish my final two weeks of London life. By all accounts he’s being spoilt rotten with liver dinners and long walks in lush green fields. Which is much more fun than travelling on trains and sitting under my desk at work.

But I miss him terribly. My commute’s not half as much fun. Everyone’s gone back to being pasty and miserable and grumpy.

I think all trains in London should employ a small, well-behaved but very cute dog to improve the mood of commuters. I’m sure productivity and happiness levels down here would soar.

Toby's spatchcock chicken impression never fails to raise a smile. Maybe it's because we all know it's his way of cooling his nether regions.

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