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Tim Dowling: it’s our first winter visit to Cornwall. Even the dog is despairing


The dog’s lust for life is extinguished by a cold cottage, frozen pipes, decayed wiring and dead moles

In the dark depths of winter the dog has suddenly developed a mysterious – and wholly inappropriate – lust for life. When I open my eyes in the morning the dog is already at my bedside staring up at me, tail thumping against the floorboards.

When I stand up the dog runs excited circles around me, barking and sneezing, as if the day held the promise of a long-awaited excursion to some super-fun dog thing.

“Trust me,” I say. “There’s nothing to look forward to.”

“Oh, yes there is,” my wife says, sitting up. “We’ve got a 10.30 appointment at the dump.”

“Ugh,” I say, although I’m secretly pleased I’ve reached a station in life where my visits to the dump are by appointment.

The dog runs down the stairs ahead of me, somersaulting over the last three steps and rolling across the hallway. It jumps to its feet, snorts and runs into the kitchen, then turns back to run towards me.

“Why are you so happy?” I say. “It’s dark, it’s raining, and we’re going to the dump without you.”

The dog falls prostrate, then sits up, then barks.

“Fine,” I say. “You can come to the dump.” My wife walks in. The dog completes two unhinged laps round the table, stopping at her feet.

“Have you had your pill yet?” my wife says. The dog barks, turns several tight circles and sits up on its hind legs.

“What’s in those pills?” I say.

Three mornings later I am woken by the thumping of the dog’s tail. In the dark beyond the mattress edge I can see its little outline juddering with enthusiasm.

“If you knew where we were going,” I say. “You’d be in no hurry.”

We’re going to Cornwall. The dog hates Cornwall.

I have not been to my father-in-law’s cottage for a long time. The last person to visit was my oldest son, who went in mid-July, after it had lain empty for more than a year. He called me as soon as he got there.

“How is it?” I said.

“The pump is broken,” he said. “And there are four dead moles in the well.”

My wife and I are going down to take stock, and to see a man about the wiring. Years ago we used to go for a week every summer with the children, but I have never stayed there in late January. I’m not sure anyone ever has.

When we arrive just before sunset, the dog is already whining. The house is, as it always was, picturesque from the outside. But it’s also -5C outside. And, it transpires, inside.

Things are much as I remember them, just more cobwebbed. There is the cooker my wife claims came from her mother’s house when she got a better one in 1973, one of its four rings still clearly labelled DO NOT USE. The pump is working, but the pipes are frozen, including the one that refills the toilet.

The heating is not an issue, because there is no heating. There is a wood stove, and electricity, but not, for the purposes of this visit, in the same room: the single wall socket has stopped working. I spend the last moments of daylight reading the instructions on a packet of old-fashioned fuse wire speckled with mouse shit, before deciding just to run a long extension cable from the other room.

Strangely for such a rustic setting, the house has very strong wifi. My wife and I sit side-by-side in front of the fire in our coats, watching Netflix on my laptop and eating the pistachios we brought.

“I’m not sure I’m having a very good time,” she says.

“This is probably the best bit,” I say. “We’ll have to go to bed eventually.”

The night is unspeakably cold: in the morning I am sore from shivering, and up before sunrise to get the fire going again. The dog, by now, has given in to something like despair, wandering disconsolately between the stove and the front door.

“Back to your old self,” I say.

We are packed and ready to go by the time the man comes about the wiring. He looks at the old fusebox with something like admiration. It is a big job, he says. He doesn’t seem too sure he wants it.

“OK, well, I’ll call you in the week,” my wife says.

We wave goodbye, but when the man gets into his truck the dog tries to get in with him. This is a little embarrassing.

“You’re with us,” I say to the dog. “And don’t worry, we’re going home right after this.”

But the dog ignores me and keeps trying to make the leap into the truck’s cab, falling back each time on to the frozen mud.

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