Talking about walking and enjoying the ordinary things about London life got me to thinking about walking at home. In my part of Johannesburg people like me usually walk around the neighbourhood for one of two reasons; to get/keep /or try to get fit or to exercise the family dogs. And for either of these options there is a kind of dress code required. To get fit, one will wear trainers of some sort and maybe even a tracksuit one would not be seen dead in elsewhere, but which gets the message across that this walk is serious; not just some idle meander. Walking the dogs, however, allows one to be a little more elegant and to bring out the lace-up loafers one’s mother referred to always as ‘English Walking Shoes.’ To wander aimlessly, simply for the sake of getting some fresh air beyond the boundaries of your garden, is to invite curiosity, unwanted approaches and possibly even a little trouble. The trick is to look as though you have a real purpose. And to have removed all jewellery, of course. This becomes quite automatic. But ethnic adornments are fine.
It is not unusual for some people – especially those who only know Johannesburg by reputation – to express considerable surprise that we ever venture out of our gardens on foot at all and yet, in all my years of dog walking – I harbour few fitness aspirations – I have had only one slightly disconcerting encounter with a passing pedestrian who came too close to me for Tessa’s comfort. So lost was he in a weed-induced haze, he found it difficult to accept her concern and after a brief altercation we were able to go our separate ways. But over time, I and my two gracious, beautiful, elderly golden retrievers have become a familiar sight to the house staff and gardeners who we may pass on the pavements and we often exchange views on weather, the gardens and even the dogs themselves who accept all compliments as their rightful due.
Sometimes, though, things take an unexpected turn, like the afternoon we were walking past a house that doubles as a ballet studio just as a class of tiny ballerinas tumbled out of the gate right in front of us. One little girl, a miniature Degas subject if ever there was one, stopped in her ballet-pump tracks, immediately in front of and at eye-level with Tessa. She looked up at me, then at Tessa before looking at me again. “You look just like your dog” she proclaimed loudly. I thanked her for the compliment with what I later thought was considerable poise. Especially when compared to her thirty-something-rushing mother who, seemingly humourless and avoiding all eye-contact, hustled her little ballerina into an enormous 4 wheel-drive with unseemly haste and sped away.
But mostly my dog-walking conversations are confined to other dog-walkers, neighbourhood staff and quite often to workmen making their way through the suburb on their way to a nearby bus stop or taxi rank and it is these strangers who tend to engage in a different sort of conversation. The most common comment is, quite simply “Gimme Wun!” usually followed by a smile and wave or the observation that I have two and can therefore surely spare one. It took several of these ‘demands’ before I understood what was actually being said and to appreciate that it is offered as a compliment rather than a serious request. As in, ‘those dogs are so beautiful, even I would like one’. This realisation came as rather a relief. I usually respond by pointing out that they’re both really old now and actually could be quite a lot of trouble. “Gimme wun” is often followed up by questions about the possibility of getting a puppy from them one day. Given that a) they’re both girls and b) were spayed years ago, there is no point in getting embroiled in that discussion. This did not deter one man though, who could not believe that anyone could have two such impressive dogs and yet not be breeding from them. With unerring discrimination, he pointed to Tessa – who has a noticeably better pedigree than her adopted sister – and insisted that he’d like a ‘baby from that wun’. I responded, equally insistently, that it was simply not possible as she is way too old for puppies. Suddenly a light seemed to dawn; “Oh” he exclaimed, “The Fallopian tubes they are tied?”
To say I was somewhat taken aback would be an understatement. I almost fell over the unsuspecting old ladies. “Yes”, I said firmly, “That’s right, they’re tied. No more babies.” At which point my temporary companion lost interest entirely and hurried off on his way home. I was left to continue my walk wondering what long-ago school biology – or family planning? – lesson had somehow resurfaced in his memory and with images of my old Granny Bee spinning in my head. For some reason, Granny Bee, born in 1893 and long gone, hovers on the fringes of my mind; a barometer for all the change we’ve seen and continue to see in this country. Born and raised in South Africa of British parents, long before the advent of apartheid, although she lived to see and experience it, she had very firm ideas about how you addressed people and what topics were fit for what company. Fallopian tubes would have been taboo in any context, even a medical one, and the idea of her granddaughter engaging in conversation about them with a passing stranger of any creed, colour or culture, would have had her spinning in her grave. I like to think though, that she’d be chuckling, if the spinning ever stops for long enough for her to get her breath these days.