|Jul/Aug 2007 Fiction|
The many occasions I watched with nothing in mind but eating up some moments of the boredom I suffered to share in my then wife's hobby, I'd thought, What's all the fuss about? What must be missing in these people's lives to need this as a substitute? Children or some other challenge? Then I asked myself how these "exhibitors" had the audacity to call it a sport, or to claim that it took a lifetime to learn and appreciate its subtleties. I smirked at the displays of despair and elation that accompanied their endless reruns of the day's results.
When I looked with a different idea in mind--one born from a madness to prove something or save what was already beyond saving--I felt my stomach turn to jelly and shook as my legs became too weak to walk away. I stood, ringside, with the stench of dog urine throbbing through layers of sawdust masking the body odours of nervous exhibitors in their finest show outfits, and was close to understanding their emotions for the one and only time. Fleetingly, I'd glimpsed something special passing along the thin cords of show leads between the dogs and their owners, and I should have crawled away and left them to their dreams. Then the canine eyes turned, alerted to my presence in their dimension by far deeper instincts than anything human. They sensed my future intent and shifted in anticipation and fear as I'd made my decision. I strutted off and would never recognize any of this again until it was far too late.
The rock music drowns out their whimpering, though not the gnawing and clawing from inside the crates, but we are immune to that. Some of the dogs are drugged. It is the only way to get them from one venue to another without them fretting or throwing up so much of their body weight that it's impossible to get them back in condition for the show. Just crumble a couple of ACP's, a dab of a moistened finger passed between the little pile of gold dust and the dog's kissing tongue, and it's more than enough for most British journeys. The trouble is some cannot shake off the drug, and they betray us with their leaden movement. They have to be starved well before the show and often force-fed back into shape after arriving.
Tonight, there are about fifteen dogs in the back of the van, bolted in wooden travelling boxes, piled on top of each other nearly to the roof with no chance of getting out for a stretch until we reach the showground. Some are champions, some just starting out. Some will never amount to anything, but their owners go on paying and paying again to prove that it's a lie. They believe that every negative decision against their dog is a slur on their lives, another rung deliberately kept out of reach. The world has been shrunken to a stage that is the show ring, with the masked players in this drama fooling no one with their disguise.
Mostly, people just get used to being beaten and carry on, turning up with the family pet, watching the big names getting bigger, and becoming more bitter and disappointed with each exit. Sometimes, though, one of these also-rans happens to breed a good one. One that attracts the wrong sort of attention. Then the ever-present whisperers start offering their placings, confirming an unprovable truth, and exposing the injustice of it all. The owner begins to crave a fair decision. A first place to start with, then surely that so-desired Challenge Certificate--the ultimate bit of green paper, stating in print and forever that the animal is good enough in the judge's opinion to become a champion. Only three of those "tickets," and you've done it. Then, as they try to come to terms with another unjust defeat, someone spills our trade into their chaliced ears: "What about a professional handler? They can win with anything."
And of course we can.
The music closes, and my colleague Gabby lights another cigarette off the butt of his last. He is one of the great handlers of all time, and though he cares to state that I'm an upstart and only winning through luck, we've become something of a team. Gabby likes to tell stories between CD's. To let me into a few more secrets of our brotherhood, and to reveal the truth hidden behind each lie we must promote and pretend to believe.
"The Pawnbroker," he says, "is judging the group next month. One of us better stand him a bottle or two, just to steady his nerves, you know. Did I ever tell you how he got to be called 'The Pawnbroker?'"
He has, but I'm just glad to be a part of all this and will listen and listen, for now. More people show dogs than go to football matches, and in this country there are only about ten full-time professional handlers. Always the centre of attention, charging from ring to ring, class to class, piling up the rosettes and prize cards until at the end of the day we usually arrive in the Big Ring for the group (Terrier, Working, Toy, Utility, Hound or Gundog) judging. Every exhibitor's dream: the Best-of-Breed animal on the end of their lead, groomed and perfect--the exemplar of its race with the owner's name attached for all to see. "Read 'em and die," we tell the ringside experts with their veiled accusations.
The Pawnbroker had bred this puppy, Gabby tells me again, a real one with everything going for it except for the fact it had decided not to let its balls appear. Some rich American heiress had spotted it a few days after it was born and just had to own it, no matter what the cost. He did everything conceivable to get the testicles to descend into the scrotum sac, but they refused to oblige. So he came up with a cunning plan: he slit the pooch's flaccid pouch open and sewed in a couple of squash balls. The dog went over the pond and everyone was happy. Then one day it was in the ring and the judge--with an unusually impressive display of understanding the breed standard--managed to count three testicles. A normal one had dropped to join the rubber imposters. All hell broke loose, and the Pawnbroker got his sobriquet along with a five year ban.
I laugh at the story again. While from the darkness of the van, a dog whimpers as if in sympathy. Maybe it even knows about blades and cuts. You see, we have to alter some, those unfortunates with minor faults that might get in the way. Say, like a tail. Such a little thing to get in the way of all that potential winning. If it goes over too far, we call that "gay," or if it is hooked in a loop, a "toby jug." Whatever, it spoils the picture and is so easy to spot. And so easy to correct, for the right price, of course. Just take a blade--home-made in the coldest silences, thin, with two flat cutting edges. Let the dog race about with another animal, close enough to get it excited, but always tantalisingly out of reach. Watch the tail to determine its fault as the dog becomes more and more wound up, as it should always be in the show ring. Then pounce with the old and new images locked in your mind. It usually needs at least two or three strong men to help hold the creature because anaesthetic is out of the question. It's not that anyone wants to be cruel, but a numb tail won't respond before or after, and you must, like any true artist, see the reality behind your creation. The blade probes its way slowly and with skill between the bones, then turns so the edges can sever the ligaments and tendons--you can hear them ping like elastic even above all the other noise. A couple here, a couple there, until everything is as nature surely intended.
Ears are a lot harder and messier. They take longer to heal, the aftercare is more complex, and they often need more than one go at correcting. "Top and tail," we say when both ends have been fixed. Like, "That Best in Show winner at Crufts was top and tailed, twice!" Could you imagine all that glory being taken away from someone for the sake of a little blood and pain? Besides, we are not like some countries where major surgery is carried out: grafts and tucks, false teeth, contact lenses. No wonder they can't breed anything when no one knows what is for real. We would never let things get that bad. We just want to be your patron saints, not God.
Gabby lights another cigarette, and I quickly stuff a CD in the player and turn it up. He is starting on about his wife, and I know where that sad, old song will end. She left him a couple of years back with a message pinned to the kennel wall waiting for his return from a show--drained and beat and just wanting to get the dogs unloaded and make bed. She said she just couldn't take the smell anymore.
"What smell?" he's always asking anyone who will listen. "Can you smell anything?"
The first time I met Gabby, he was setting fire to a dog. In the middle of a busy showground with all the public and officials just a wall of canvas away. I was mooching around one of the grooming tents hoping to pick up a tip or two from the professional handlers, and there was Gabby with a dog on the stripping table. A Welsh terrier if I remember correctly. Another of the professionals was standing in front of the table blocking off the view from anyone passing the entrance.
"Come here," Gabby said to me, "and you might get to learn something." I stood shoulder to shoulder with the other handler to help hide what was going down. Gabby lit a length of thick cord and used it to paint the dog in flames, singeing its fur inch by inch, slapping out the sudden flare-ups without any sign of panic. When the dog had a tight, hard covering left, he plastered it in a mixture of chalk and dye and left it standing to dry. "It can't grow a hard coat," he told me, "no matter what you do. This is the only way." I was impressed, not only by his skill and knowledge, but by the fact the dog had actually gone to sleep while it was happening. At least that is what I'd thought at the time.
I watched him in the ring later as he went on and won the ticket with that dog and all the other exhibitors stood there with their efforts at grooming and breeding left in his wake. I learned plenty that day. "You never stop learning in this game," the old breeders love to intone. And they know. They are more than just custodians. Theirs was the vision of type and ideal that shaped the world of pedigree dogs. That perfect animal always just one more litter or cull away.
When I say "breeders," I am talking about the proper ones, a dying breed themselves these days, that actually love their dogs and want to promote them through the show ring. Not the new sort that find the animals incidental to their goals. They are just in it for the power and kudos with the ultimate aim of qualifying to judge. It has very little to do with money and everything to do with the ultimate accolade of becoming a championship judge. To be able to travel around the country, then the world, with their opinion unchallengeable and sending its ripples backwards and forwards forever. To have bred a champion is the first step; to keep winning helps the momentum until each new appointment is assured, and the fact most of them couldn't tell a three-legged rocking horse from a dog is lost behind their unimpeachable reputations. We just help get them there; they, in return, make certain we keep going.
I've got one of them today--two, if you count the judge as well as the client. The client is desperate for her first British champion--and starting to become impatient. She and her hubby are from one of those wealthy Scandinavian countries. They have been involved in showing dogs over here for about eighteen months and already feel that things are dragging. Their bitch has won two tickets, and luckily I'm on for the third today. It is a crappy little creature with close, tied movement and a spooky temperament. But that doesn't matter. What matters is today's judge. He is giving tickets for the first time and will be shit scared of making a fool of himself or offending the wrong people. He will be glad of any help received--and will already have been got at. Not with money. Remember, money means nothing. But through pressure and promises.
"Give my bitch the ticket," my owner will have said to him, "and you'll be making up a champion on your first appointment. Two other judges can't have got it wrong. Why risk anything controversial? And, of course, you know that when I am made a judge, I have always truly been a fan of your dogs."
On and on it will have gone, until, so long as I give him the nod that it is the right animal in front of him, my winning is guaranteed.
One time, when I was new to all of this and just starting to become established, through what I then believed was my own hard work and efforts and nothing to do with other people's schemes, I had a client's bitch on two tickets and took her to show under a lady judge doing her first number. She was well out of touch with the scene but had fucked her way to this position in an earlier time and was still out to collect any dues owing. "Tell her," the owner instructed me, "when no one can hear you, that the dog has two tickets." I loved that dog. She had the most stunning head and expression I had ever seen. It dominated the whole ring and drew attention from everyone, friend or foe. So I kept my mouth shut. I wanted to win on merit alone. To prove that all the susurrations blowing around the huge tented village were just sighs of disappointment. I was showing in "open" bitch. The open class is considered the toughest as all dogs are eligible, including those that are already champions. Usually, the winner of open is a certainty for the ticket. I won open against tough competition. I stood in line for the Challenge Certificate knowing that I was about to make up my first champion. The judge, clinging to some vestige of the looks that had got her there, strutted up and down the line making a fine show of assessment. She handed the ticket to the winner of the limit class and the reserve ticket to the junior winner.
She spoke to me outside the ring and said she liked my bitch but felt the animal wasn't quite ready for her first ticket! She told the owner on the phone that night she had been scared to give what she thought was a first CC to a handler she hadn't recognized, and so she went down the line to more familiar faces.
"Why," the owner said, she kept on asking him, "didn't a 'professional' tell me?" The breeder took that bitch off me and gave it to another handler who made her up at the next championship show. It broke my heart.
Now I know. And though it is strictly against the rules to speak to a judge in the ring during judging, I will chant it out like a mantra: "It's on two, make it up. It's on two, glory for you."
The owners of the bitch will turn up today dressed for the occasion. They will have hampers of food and crates of champagne at the ready. As soon as I win, they'll throw a party. All the other exhibitors and the judge will turn up--and everyone will act surprised and delighted. I am required to put in an appearance and accept my praise. It will be minimal and given reluctantly. Professional handlers are not liked. We are mercenaries that are tolerated for the duration of each battle. We don't care. The war goes on and on.
Bruce Springsteen is screaming "Born in the USA" as we descend the final hill to the showground. The massive car parks are already starting to fill with early arrivals. Some people have been here all night, sleeping in vehicles, their hopes and pets steaming up the windscreens as they dream and wait. We are allowed to drive straight into the show. The guard at the gates recognizes us from a long way off and is joking as we drive in. "Now there is going to be trouble," he tells his young assistant. "Now the show really gets underway." We speed by with the music drowning out our replies.
Everything is off-loaded. The dogs--including nearly all of the would-be sick travellers and too-closely bred anorexics--that needed force-feeding, have been stuffed. Most of the colouring and other illegal activities have been done before the public were allowed in. We have changed into our suits and ties and are standing around trying to look mean and unapproachable. And if you could call the endless barking and yelping of thousands of dogs and the excited babbling of their owners calm, then this is the calm before the storm. Soon the loudspeakers will give out their little welcome speech and wish everyone luck and fair play. Then we'll be on a rush with everything moving so slow it hurts.
I've seen a few of my clients getting into position. Including the two who are expecting it to be their day. They nearly managed a smile before darting into one of the V.I.P. tents to await their moment of glory.
Gabby comes over and says the usual: "I have the feeling this is going to be our day." Then he adds something another famous handler is credited with quoting after a day's monumental winning. "Leave them just their eyes that they may stand and weep."
For some reason, as he walks away, I look into the travel box where the future champion waits. It is black inside, and yet I feel I can see her eyes staring out through the mesh front of her prison at everything happening. It makes me remember something my father once said. We were talking about art and how it could say things about great issues and injustices by using an image that could be endlessly enlarged and reinterpreted. He said that he liked the cartoonists and one piece, in particular. It had been on the occasion of some Russian space flight, when they had blasted this dog named, Laika, into the firmament and left her up there drifting about and waiting to die. This cartoon had shown the huge void that is space--silent and infinite--with the little capsule in the middle of it. Inside was Laikas, nicknamed Mutnic, staring out, wide-eyed, trustingly, into our lives. The caption had read: "A giant step for man."
Through another space the PA system barks out its order, and I slip a lead around the dog. It is the time for judging to commence.