A daily dog walk along the Water of Leith with Daphne. We run into Oscar, a lavishly stodgy bulldog, square-shaped, with a tail as waggy as a windscreen wiper.
“How’s his epilepsy?” I ask.
His mum sighs. In line with dog walking rules, I know names of hounds only, not people. “I try not to let him get too excited,” she says. “But we have to accept we’re not going to have him as long as we might have liked.” We sigh and watch our dogs sniff each other’s butts.
Dog walking talk. It’s a breed of its own, tending to revolve around the weather, which becomes endlessly fascinating when you have to be out in it for two hours every single day. Then your dogs’ ages, histories, quirks, bad habits, and how you ever managed without them. Also loneliness, fear and, now and then, death. On one or two occasions I’ve found myself comforting a weeping stranger one moment, then calling our dogs, shouting a cheery goodbye and moving on the next.
I thought I knew this network of paths. In those carefree days when I was sans hound I would pound them regularly to get to Stockbridge, go to the supermarket, punish a hangover or go on the odd bike ride. OK, the last one is a lie. The only time I’ve touched my bike in the last 18 months is to dust it.
Walking was a different pursuit. I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me. The rhythmic act of putting one foot in front of the other was simply a matter of getting from A to B. I noticed the odd thing along the way – a tree with a particularly beautiful silhouette, an elderly couple holding hands, a pile of vomit – but beyond that, I wasn’t walking for the sake of walking. I was on my way.
Now this humble activity that we homo sapiens have been doing ever since we stood up on our hairy pins and wandered off in search of food, shelter and a good DVD has taken on a whole new meaning. Everything looks different now that I have a little lean companion trotting beside me. I notice so much more. How the leaves on the ground darken and become more mulchy with each passing day. The row of tenements that are hit by the setting sun around 4pm and, for a short time only and for the lucky few walking past, blaze a rich, shocking red. The danger zones where Daphne can, and does, disappear. The squirrel hot spots. And, most of all, the people and their pooches. Suddenly, for the first time since moving to Edinburgh, they want to talk to me.
It’s also about repetition. Doing the same walk, at the same time, every day. What else but a dog – or an obsessive-compulsive disorder – would prompt this? You might think it would get boring, but perversely it becomes more interesting as the familiarity deepens. A bit like learning a new skill. Or falling in love.
A little further along, an exuberant English bull terrier puppy bounds up to Daphne. A rescue dog, like mine and so many others in Leith.
“Stunning,” I say, tweaking his pop-up ears.
His owner looks sad. “Yes,” he says, “but he never stops. I just can’t manage him. I’m giving him up …” I make sympathetic noises. Such a difficult decision to make. He looks devastated and ashamed.
“Where will he go?” I ask.
“A retired woman who can be with him all the time,” he says, trying to smile.
“Well, that’s nice,” I say in an attempt to reassure him. “Hopefully I’ll see them around some time.” And we walk on.