My brother’s three Borders are called Roxy, Ruby and Taz. My one ambition in life is to own a terrier again, or rather three terrier bitches, just so that I can call them Tray, Blanch and Sweetheart. (Lear, mad on the heath: ‘The little dogs and all, Tray, Blanch and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me.’) I ask my brother for the latest news of his dogs.
He says he recently took Ruby up to Yorkshire, to be served by a well-known pedigree Border stud dog. My brother is a regular customer there. It’s a ten-hour round trip. The moment he draws up in his car, he says, the dog’s owner comes out into the yard and unrolls his ‘mating mat’ and lays it down, and his stud dog goes ballistic with joy, knowing what’s in store. Then my brother gets Ruby out of the car and sets her on the mat, and the owner releases the dog, who is across that yard like an arrow and starts the job without so much as a ‘how-do-you-do’.
When the dogs have tied, the dog’s owner invites my brother into his kitchen and puts the kettle on. Here they have the same conversation that they have every time my brother goes up there. It’s about a Hoopoe. This man loves birds, and the annual visit of our most exotic visitor to his garden is the highlight of his year. The man has a thick, dialect-rich Yorkshire accent, and my brother is a wonderful mimic. And my brother has me in paroxysms with his rendition of the man’s excited account of the comings and goings of ‘Th’oopoe’, while the dogs are coupling on the mat in the yard.
Then we talk football. Or more specifically football chants. Yesterday he emailed over a Daily Mirror chart of the top ten best chants from the past decade. We discuss it. I argue that the Manchester United fans singing to Luis Suárez: ‘Your teeth are offside, your teeth are offside, Luis Suárez your teeth are offside’ is the funniest song, in spite of being undeservedly well down the list. My brother says that the Mirror illustrated the article with a photograph of Luis Suárez’s teeth. Not his face, just the teeth caught at a goofy moment. And then my brother sticks out his upper front teeth as far as they will go, and looks at me, and he looks so ridiculous (bearing in mind that he spends most of his week as a big, incorruptible policeman, who, on an uncompromising point of principle, nicks anyone who calls him a pig, or who even makes a sotto voce noise like a pig as he passes by in the high street) that I laugh at him until he dissolves in my tears.
Number one on the list was West Ham fans singing ‘His name is Rio and he watches from the stand’ — to the tune of ‘Rio’ by Duran Duran. This might not sound remotely amusing printed here like this in a Spectator column. And perhaps it isn’t. But somehow it was irresistibly funny to us at that moment as we sang it together. So funny that neither of us could finish it, both of us being Hammers fans, who can easily picture Rio Ferdinand’s protruding, disconsolate lower lip, and we were both helpless.
Then my brother told me that he had recently achieved his ambition to play for 90 minutes in the same Sunday side as his son. His son is 16 and a promising midfielder; my brother is 47. He tells me how he loves to hear his son screaming dementedly at him for the ball, going, ‘Dad! Dad!’ When they first hear it, he says, the opposing team can’t run for laughing, and from that moment on, whenever he gets the ball, everyone on the pitch yells, ‘Dad! Dad!’ at him.
I love my brother. He never gossips or shows the slightest interest in the wider family politics. He just does his job as well as he can, and does his best for his family, and keeps himself fit with football and judo, and his dogs fit with long and varied walks. The last time he took Roxy to the vet, her pulse was so slow that the vet took five minutes to find one.
And now he’s pushing out his Luis Suárez teeth at me again as we drive across the tawny barrenness of central Dartmoor, gilded now with early morning sunshine. We have hot coffee, and fresh crusty rolls filled with cold roast beef and horseradish, and satsumas in our daypacks. Roxy, Ruby and Taz are in the boot, softly whimpering their anticipation. And my brother and I have the entire day ahead of us to disappear into the cathedral silence and walk and talk and laugh. His idea. To get me out and about again, he says.
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