he other night, a prostitute offered me a dog. It’s not as surprising an offer as it sounds; for the past two years, after work, which finishes rather late for me, around 1 in the morning or so, I have been wandering the streets near where I live with my dog in what has become the main walk of the day. The lady in question had taken a keen interest when two years ago, some friends and I tried to rescue a fairly stubborn dog that had taken to hanging around the street corner near one of Beijing’s premier gynecological hospitals. I can’t imagine why this is a good spot for streetwalkers, but it seems the trade is strong.
It had taken some time to win the dog’s trust, but even more to persuade her that life in an actual home would be preferable to the dirt hole she had dug under some bushes in front of a small row of shops and law offices. Many local people watched out for her, and put food out as well so she was never quite hungry enough. At night, when I cycled home, she would be waiting for some petting on the corner, before trotting off down the street and disappearing into the gloom. Sometimes, I got near enough to put a collar on, only to be stymied by one of the ladies of the night wobbling along on their high heels to see what was going on. In the end, it must have been a combination of the summer rainstorms and just wearing her down that persuaded the dog that life off the streets would be preferable.
But everyone still knows her, and by extension, me. I am the odd foreigner who wanders around in the small hours of the morning, come rain, wind, heat or pollution with a small black dog that I never intended to keep. The security guards, the construction workers and the men who drive the street sweepers know me, as well the drivers of the trucks that shoot out jets of water that I am sure they suck up from the sewers, judging by the smell.
The man who sells jianbing (Beijing pancakes) and bean noodles his wife makes outside my compound at night always tries to pronounce the dog’s name – Monkey – when he sees us, but he more often comes out with something more akin to “Menka”. The dog always ignores him – despite his best efforts. Luckily his wife’s noodles and his pancakes have a pretty sterling reputation around these parts, and there is always a line of young kids that have just finished arduous shifts in their restaurant or hairdressing jobs, or taxi drivers that stop by on their way in or out of the city’s busiest nightlife area, Sanlitun.
So people probably weren’t astonished when I suddenly turned up with another dog – a white one, around the same size as Monkey with a twisted front left paw, who followed us home one night, just as a fierce summer storm was rolling in. I felt sorry for him, and allowed him home with us – just for a few days, I thought. Some 18 months later, Monty still has his paws firmly ensconced under my table, and now when we go out, people think I collected a black dog and a white one on purpose, in a kind of color-matching scheme.
Monty is irrepressible, and doesn’t let the fact that he’s disabled hold him back, even though he’s not supposed to walk too far. He has taken against electric bike riders, which I can understand, and sometimes lunges at them, but he loves to make friends with the local stray cats, and currently has three kittens that slavishly follow him around when we go out into the garden. Lately, they follow us out onto the streets, so that gets us even more strange looks. A foreigner, two dogs and three cats in a strange entourage going along the street.
The dogs have an uncanny ability to hear when a cat is in trouble. Last year, I rescued two kittens from the air ducts of sub-basements in a compound across the road. One middle-aged lady who had a shop in the subterranean level thought I was crazy to want to clamber around in the dark to rescue a cat, but once she saw I was determined, decided to join in with gusto, throwing dusty old furniture around with abandon so we could prize open a window and retrieve the kitten from where it had fallen. Another security guard who did the clambering for me was a bit disgruntled when he discovered it was a stray and not my own kitten, but still fished it out anyway. The kittens, starving and flea-ridden, both recovered and were adopted.
I didn’t take the dog from the prostitutes, and didn’t ask why they had one. It’s all I can do to manage the ones I have, plus the kittens that I will inevitably become responsible for.