When journalist Kate Spicer adopted a lurcher called Wolfy, it completely changed her life. Then Wolfy disappeared and Spicer launched a London-wide search mission and Twitter campaign to get him back, a story she recounts in her brilliant memoir Lost Dog. In the extract below, she recalls the moment when, hungover, she decided to get a dog
With porridge-coloured walls and a dark concrete floor, Coffee Plant on Portobello Road functions like a grim needle exchange for discerning caffeine addicts. In fact, that’s pretty much what it is. In the mornings its loo is always busy with the motions of recently stimulated middle-aged bowels. They sell good coffee, a lot of it: if you count the ‘Gershon therapeutic roast’, which is a green bean used for enemas and colonics, that’s 27 different types of bean behind the wooden counter.
I lock my bike to its own wheel and lean it against the wall outside. A small girl is waddling along behind her mother very slowly and I walk in front and through the heavy glass door but I do not hold it for them. The door closes on the child’s face. The woman comes in after me and gets right up in my face with a righteous form of indignant maternal fury. ‘You knew, you knew, you knew she was there.’
‘I’m so sorry.’ The emphasis on the so doesn’t come out quite right. I sound a bitch. ‘I just assumed you’d get the door for your own child. Is she OK?’
A squirm of shame runs through me. Had I known? Did I feel annoyed by being co-opted into plodding adoring reverence of this small child? Yes, I need coffee, but did I need to dash through the door so fast – after all one could hardly describe my day as ‘busy’. The scene in the coffee shop can be fractious sometimes, over-attentive parents, kids running up and down screaming, around recovering addicts from the Salvation Army’s AA and NA meetings over the road. It’s an all-human-life place. I love it.
Very little of the Notting Hill I inhabit looks like the one in the Working Title movie. The floppy-haired posh people who sometimes drank a bit too much wine lived down the road in Fulham and Wandsworth, and, if they had money, in Kensington. We had posh people round here, but they were party-loving flakes or flint-eyed fashionistas. We had ex-junkie gentry, and copious numbers of David Cameron’s trendy Tory chums. Their public school privilege is diluted by one of the most ethnically diverse corners of this country. At last count, more than 90 different ethnic groups in North Kensington, the realest corner of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and the most fun. So yah, I sometimes waved cheery greetings to the son of a Duke or brushed past the man who wrote Notting Hill, pottering around his neighbourhood in an anorak.
Equally though, there were copious other strands of Britishness – the second, third and fourth generation Portuguese, Moroccans, Spanish or Colombians – the more recent arrivals from Sudan and Somalia. And underpinning it all, intensely on August Bank Holiday weekend, were the West Indian contingent who arrived with Windrush in the fifties. The magic is in the mix. I knew all sorts round here but no one remotely like Hugh Grant or his charming, bumbling, harmless pals in that movie. Hugh lives in Earl’s Court on the other side of the borough. Everyone knows that, don’t they?
In the coffee shop queue I see Keith, who is an elegant PR from Northern Ireland. He’s so neatly pressed I don’t want him to see me with my paranoid, twitchy hangover. Shrinking behind a French girl in a men’s Crombie coat, I hide in the queue. Before, that is, I clock the tan and white whippet at his side. My overwhelming urge to touch it overrides any concerns about my old skanky jeans. ‘Hey Keith,’ I say, smiling, and bending to one side. ‘Is this yours?’
‘Kate!’ He greets me with a warm enthusiasm that disarms me. ‘Yes, this is my boy, this is Castor.’ The dog stands still as I stroke him from the tip of his skull and along his back. The effect is not much different to a dose of Valium. My skin still feels crusted with the fag-drenched crud of last night and I laugh it off to Keith with some explanatory detail of my stinking hangover and dawn bedtime. His snorting laugh has a ‘been there’ lilt of grim empathy. ‘What goes up must come down.’
Keith and I sit down at a Formica table to take our cups of bastard-strong caffeine together. I soothe myself on his dog’s silky ears, swirling them in my fingers, smoothing my hands over the length of his back’s slithery soft fur. I am almost groaning with pleasure. ‘He’s lovely, Keith.’ The dog is still and calm. He stands there beside me.
I could weep like a Catholic at the foot of the cross begging for forgiveness and eternal love. Instead I say, ‘What are they like, whippets? Do they need a lot of exercise?’
‘He’s a lurcher, actually. God knows what other breeds are in there, definitely lots of whippet, maybe a bit of Labrador. I got him from a farm in Kent for £100. And no. He gets two walks a day and then he sleeps.’
‘I’d love to have a dog,’ I say.
We gossip about work a bit. ‘I’d better get back and do some writing.’
He gives me the cynical raised eyebrow. ‘Really? Come for a walk.’
In Keith’s Audi, Castor stands in the back with his chin resting on the top of the seat behind me. I can feel his warm long snout against my neck. We talk about keeping a dog in London. ‘These dogs are great. You don’t need a garden. They’re calm. They’re clean.’
Family lore dictated dogs were unhappy in London. I’d always wanted a dog but was sent scurrying from the idea by a belief system drummed in since birth. Dogs and London don’t mix. We walk at Wormwood Scrubs, a 60 acre expanse of near-deserted scrub and woodland next to the famous prison. I didn’t even know it was here.
Back at home I clear all evidence of the hopeless day’s recovery. I smooth the sheets and whumpf the duvet up, expelling my miserable sweaty traces. I smooth it so hard, it looks like Charlie has made it. Well, not that good. But there’ll be none of his pissed-off huffing and blowing at the sight of my tangled hungover bed. In this flurry of activity and improvement, I will energy into my depleted body. What goes up, must come down; and go up again.
Tim texts me, ‘Such a fun naughty night. So good to see you.’ I delete it. I know Charlie’s walking home, shiny shoes going clip-clip down the street, smart leather document folder tucked under his arm. He’s probably taking important calls but I know, also, he’ll be wondering what chaotic state the flat is in and his slovenly self-employed girlfriend too.
His footsteps ring on the metal steps up to the only door we have, windows fogged by cooking. Inside, the reassuring smell of garlic softening in butter.
I go to speak, and he holds up his hand. He is indeed on a call. I clatter about finding things to fiddle with, killing time until I can say what I so urgently need to.
‘Right. Yes, sorry.’
‘I saw Keith today and you know he has a dog, it’s a lurcher, called Castor, anyway we took it for a walk to Wormwood Scrubs, it’s huge there, I mean huge, and it’s only five minutes away from here and it’s great for walking dogs and I think we should get one. I think we should get a dog.’
‘Good idea, Fox,’ he says. Fox, the name he gave me when we were still wallowing in the oxytocin joy of first love. ‘You sort it out. What’s for supper?’
Extracted from Lost Dog by Kate Spicer (Ebury Press, £9.99). Buy a copy here.
Kate Spicer will be speaking at the Idler Festival 2020. Buy Early Bird tickets here.