The Best Dog in Plague Town

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I am driving someone else’s car out into Plague Town. The country roads are narrow, one lane, always at risk of seeing some behemoth tractor filling the horizon, forcing me on to occasional slim strips of grass and gravel serving as a “passing lane.” I am tense.

But then I am staring into the rearview mirror at the placid and content face of the best dog in the world. I am substantially less tense.

It is someone else’s dog. Like the car is someone else’s car, and the house we pulled away from a few minutes earlier is someone else’s house, and the sheets my wife and I sleep on are someone else’s sheets, and the country we look out at each morning is someone else’s country. I am driving in this unfamiliar car on these unfamiliar streets in order to shop for other people, or drop other people’s packages off at the post office. As I get into town I see a few masks, but not enough. I see some people distanced appropriately, but not all. The tension reasserts. But then I glance in the rearview again.

Bessie, a golden retriever-lab mix, loves riding in the car. If she sees you grab the keys, she will run outside and stand by the trunk of the aging SUV, waiting for it to pop open so she can jump inside. Once in, she is the most relaxed she will ever be without being asleep. She will watch the scenery go by, or lie down and nap, or simply place her head in the gaps between the back seat headrests and gaze toward you in the driver seat where you can glance in the mirror and feel her air of contentment wash over you.

Bessie does not know about Plague Town, of course. Bessie doesn’t need to know about Plague Town.

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We are nomads these days, having sold our house and left the U.S. around nine months ago, before wandering around Asia and New Zealand for a while. We arrived in England on the first day of March, where we had arranged to house- and dog-sit for a retired couple as they traveled abroad. We are now in month three of a one-month stay.

It was actually the neighbors who greeted us on arrival, as our hosts had left the previous week. Richard, a gregarious retiree (“I used to own about 250 pubs,” he said, much the same way Serena Williams might someday say “Oh, I used to dabble in sports”), showed us around the house — a 500-year-old converted farmhouse, all gray stone and low doorways and sloped tile floors, more fireplaces and wood burners from which one could conceivably derive warmth on a given day, a full-sized snooker table in a room clearly used almost entirely for storage.

He didn’t bring the dog over just yet though, telling us to take that first evening to get settled and they would bring her over in the morning. So we settled in, and slept, and slept some more, and slept through the messages about bringing the dog over now, and then woke up very quickly upon the knocks at the door. And there was Bessie, with no shortage of fanfare: meeting us was enough to send her into a glorious frenzy, a level of uncontained excitement where her only recourse is to turn — “run” is not the right word, because she essentially stays over a stationary pivot point — in a series of rapid circles, tongue out and tail flailing, until she collapses to the ground and permits belly rubs to commence.

And so we began our supposedly month-long period of pet care, at that point fully aware that the virus was on its way but without a clear picture of its shape to come. We didn’t know, yet, that we would be stuck here for quite a while, that our hosts would be stuck in the Southern Hemisphere for not-quite-as-long, and that Bessie and her serene grin from the back of the car would help shepherd us through the tense days of death and ruin.

Every morning, when one of us would semi-begrudgingly wake up around seven and go downstairs into the AGA-warmed kitchen that housed one of several Bessie beds, she would greet us by grabbing whatever was nearby — a sock or a shoe, a blanket, one of her toys — and parade around with it in her mouth, tail wagging. We’re told she had been trained to bring her owner his newspaper in bed, so perhaps she was just trying to fulfill that particular duty.

After breakfast she would go back to sleep, as one should. If we sat on the couch she would join us, head smushed between our bodies and the cushions, snoring peacefully. If we stayed in the kitchen and made coffee, she would curl up against the AGA, waiting for us to make the next move. By the time 9:30 or 10 am rolled around, though, she was in charge: it is time for a walk, you see, and she will push toys into your face or crotch, whatever is available, until you agree.

We walked Bessie along wet country roads and met more of the neighbors, most of whom seemed to recognize her. Some even carried treats in their pockets for her (well, for other dogs too, but I don’t specifically care about the other dogs so I like to imagine they were only for her), even though they did not themselves have a dog. We walked her up the “knole,” the tiny town’s namesake hill, past newborn lambs hiding behind their mothers. We were told she was fine off-leash as long as we weren’t near those lambs or in the street, but that took us a week or so to get up the courage — she didn’t know us, after all, and we didn’t feel like having a “we [tugs collar] lost your dog” conversation.

After a walk she could relax, unless of course the mailman arrived, which she somehow seemed to know was happening ten seconds before he even turned his little red van into our lane, and also somehow seemed to know that it was this specific mailman and not the other one who filled in on two days each week, because it was this specific one who always has treats in his pocket for her. Toward late afternoon she would start to get a bit rambunctious — “rammy,” as we termed it — and we would go out into the yard, rain permitting, to run around with her. She was only halfway interested in fetch, but she loved a good tug-of-war over a stick, and was also game to sort of just be chased around the yard. We imagined the neighbors giggling to themselves as they watched a panting dog run circles around the dumb Americans.

After dinner, Bessie was calm as could be. She would sit with us by the fire each night, sometimes tucking her nose under her tail or just stretching her head out across one of our feet. We watched movies and read books and waited for the world to end.

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I am sitting in the parked car, in a Plague Town parking lot, while my wife is inside the grocery store. Shopping in pairs is no longer an option, but we try to do this as a united front anyway, as if heading into Plague Town together will somehow convince the virus to leave us alone. Bessie is in the trunk, watching the people pass. I tell her she is a good girl, and she turns toward me and lays her head on the seat back.

The U.K. has been locked down for around a month now. Like everyone else, on most nights I dream about disease and anxiety and zombies chasing me. We have broken, rural broadband-addled WhatsApp and Facetime and Zoom calls with parents and friends, though no one has anything to talk about anymore. We have tense conversations about where we’ll go next and how we’ll get there. The plans we had before, for further house- and dog-sits in France and Scotland and wherever we could manage, have obviously been consumed in the fires of the pandemic. We are, more or less, rudderless.

But then we take Bessie up the knole, and let her off the leash and amble as she tears around the fields, searching for rabbits and then gleefully bounding back to us and sitting obediently until I, also obediently, reach into my pocket for a treat.

We read news reports of horrors in nursing homes, of strange symptoms like blood clots and rashes in younger people, or conspiracy-addled television personalities managing to spread misinformation to tens of millions of people.

But then we sit outside as the weather warms, reading spy novels and Jane Austen books we found on shelves scattered throughout the house in the afternoon sun with the dog lounging on the picnic table in front of us, a backlit Plague Town balm.

We watch the case counts spin upwards, see the governments of our original home and our quarantine home compete over who botched the response worse, and wonder which people we know will die.

But then we rile the dog into yet another fun frenzy and give her a twentieth nickname, Chompy Chomperson, Professional Chompster, which I then can spend a few minutes photoshopping onto a business card that I can text across the room for a laugh.

There is no good news in Plague Town, not really, but there is someone else’s dog’s head stretched out across my feet, snoring in the general direction of the fire.

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One sunny day in late April, our hosts come home. Out of nowhere a flight from Auckland through Doha materialized, and they took the perhaps ill-advised plunge from the country already then emerging as the pandemic champion back to the country stumbling its way toward armageddon. We couldn’t blame them, of course; Bessie was here.

We had discussed with them weeks before that whenever they did manage to get home we could move into The Flat, an attached but separate and self-sufficient apartment where their son had lived for many years, now standing empty. The walls were covered in antique clocks and ornate barometers that served as part-hobby and part-post-retirement business, all pointing to different times or to some varied collection of “Fair,” “Rain,” “Stormy,” or “Very Dry.” By the time they got that flight, we didn’t really have much of a choice; Plague Town Lock Down was in full effect, and we weren’t essential enough to justify any rule-breaking.

The bad news we quickly discovered was that the fridge in The Flat did not, in fact, function; the good news was that the utility room in the main house had a small second fridge, and the really good news was that our hosts were the most absurdly kind and generous people imaginable. While we had been dog-sitting for them, it was a fair trade; at this point we were just interlopers, strangers stuck in their midst, now forced to go outside and around toward the utility room and into their home in order to grab the leftover pasta we were going to kill for lunch. They didn’t mind in the least.

But the best news was that they were happy to let Bessie — who barked joyously and wagged furiously but notably did not turn in ecstatic circles when they arrived back after two months away — roam back and forth between our separate bubbles. They said to absolutely take her for walks, to play with her in the yard, to let her smush her face between us and our new couch cushions. This may not have been the best strict quarantine protocol, but even months in, Bessie still didn’t know about Plague Town. And her parents may have finally made it home, but we were the fun aunt and uncle, slipping her a couple of beers on her way to a friend’s place. We did not lack for her company.

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A few weeks more have passed. We still do not know when we can leave, either from this bucolic and welcoming retreat or, more generally, from Plague Town. As we haltingly plot our exit, Bessie asleep under the table or next to us on the couch, we joke of stealing her when we go, or finding her supposedly dog-napped father and, comic book villain-like, engineering another version to accompany us out beyond the confines of this old farm. We do this sadly, knowingly, already seeing her diminish in the rearview as we drive away.

We drive into Plague Town more often now — we shop for our hosts, and our friendly neighbors, and offer to bring packages to the post office for others in town. We go to gas stations and fill up containers for use with various lawn equipment. We drop bill payments through slots in the door of the bank, just under the sign asking people to truly consider whether coming inside will be necessary. When we head out, Bessie leaps into the trunk every time, content to sit as long as we let her.

As the days pass, she seems to spend more and more time with us. We feel… vaguely bad about this, but we whisper to each other excitedly that she seems to like us more. Maybe we’re just a bit more her speed: we are the types to chase her around the yard, and tug on sticks, and rile her to the point of Chompy Chomperson, Professional Chompster’s emergence.

But our conversations still trend toward the dark and ugly. We read stories about New Zealand’s zero new cases and the U.K.’s incredible death toll, and wonder again whey they pounced on the flight. We bat somewhere around .200 on video calls with people just as stuck as we are, except stuck in their own homes, with their own pets frolicking in the background, part of the population of millions out there who will never know about Plague Town at all. We realize our time with our adopted niece is likely getting short, as lockdowns begin to ease elsewhere and our own plans for jobs, apartments, visas, start to solidify. As the virus only seems to intensify here, we play mild mind games, trying to convince the people we shop and run errands for that fewer excursions out into Plague Town is better than more excursions, but the message doesn’t always take, and we’re not exactly in a position to say no. We sit in The Flat, nervous, always nervous.

But then we hear a flurry of padded feet in the hallway, and Bessie comes bounding in from the main house, tail beyond control, carrying a sock or a shoe she picked up in the hallway. And then we walk up her up the knole, and leave her off the leash longer and longer, until on our way back she decides to jump down the five feet off a stone wall toward the neighbor’s open back door, where a bowl of water intended for a dog that is very much not Bessie awaits, which she will drink from happily and then greet the neighbor as I call out unnecessary apologies before Bessie leaps those five feet back up over the stone wall and runs toward us, tongue lolling out, her grin stretching the width of Plague Town and then some.

Science journalist. Find examples of my work at www.davelevitan.com.

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