I’m glad to report that the injury rate to me has reduced, and Chico has undertaken some superb stretches of strolling, head down, undistracted by verges for whole dozens of minutes at a time. The Lleyn Peninsula is behind us, and we rounded the corner alongside the Menai Straights, where four tides a day wash up and down the narrow, sheltered channel between the great Isle of Anglesey and the mainland.
There have been some fine examples of stubbornness though, and only the other day, standing in the pouring rain next to a stationary donkey and the thunderous intersection of the A55 and the A487, the thought struck me that it’s no coincidence that there are a lot of maltreated donkeys in the world. They don’t go out of their way to soften the boiling hearts of frustrated muleteers. I consider myself pretty patient and non-violent, but this animal of mine seems to have a very good idea of my fury buttons already. Some of his classic moves:
- The ‘only-this-blade-of-grass-will-do,-ha!-fooled-you,-I-win!’ move
This is when he pretends to be genuinely hungry for a particular clump, so in kindness I give him a little rope and allow him a munch. He turns to the verge (9 or 3 o’clock), which is fine, and then takes advantage of the loose rope to turn all the way around to 6 o’clock, shoving me out of the way so that I am weak at the end of the rope (and off balance with my big backpack). Sometimes at this stage he is genuinely distracted by a tasty sprouting, and I just have to work my way back up the rope, but quite often he takes off very fast the way we came. I have to trot to get to his head end again, and reestablish control, and sometimes he trots too, forcing me to try to overtake him, running in the wrong direction with a clanking backpack, usually swearing
- The footcrushing sidestep
If I see the above move coming in time, I grip the rope at his head and stop him getting past 3 or 9. If he’s grumpy with this he sometimes pulls, and I have to hold my ground. To get more purchase in pulling against me, he splays out the front foot on my side, planting the hoof directly onto the outside edge of my foot. It may just be to brace himself, or it may be to deliberately cause me pain – I know which motives I suspect…
- The slow sweep of weary disdain
This is a regular, and just what it says on the tin. Pivoting that great neck, he slowly swings his head away from me with a look of tired resignation in the nearside eye. It can be when I go to give him a scratch, am telling him the plan for the day, thought we were having a companionable moment, or offer him a bunch of grass that he’s not interested in right now, obviously. There are faster versions for if I accidentally knock an ear, or am trying to put Sudacrem on his nose, but the worst is this slow-motion condescending snub
These are the little maddening habits of our days together, but there are also the bigger frustrations. The other day there was a three-hour stand-off at a narrow bridge. I’d have given in after ten minutes, but Rhys was with us for the day and, it turns out, is almost as stubborn as Chico. Rhys tried coaxing Chico with words and treats, he tried abandoning him and having a party at the other end of the bridge, he tried wrapping up Chico’s ears in a shirt to muffle the sound of the water. He tried frightening him by flapping the rain mac behind him, he tried waving a stick, he tried making blinkers out of cardboard, and he tried marching encouragingly past. He tried tiny pieces of bara brith along the handrail, and he tried taking Chico for a walk along the riverbank to show him there was no other way around. He even tried to shove him – the most immediately obvious non-starter. Someone on Facebook suggested that we could wrap a cloth around his eyes, and without sight he’d come with us – it had worked for their horse. We tried it, but donkeys can remember things for decades; funnily enough two minutes of sightlessness wasn’t enough to cause him to forget where we’d been trying to get him to go for the previous two hours. I think I’d have lost a bit of respect for him if that one had worked.
Then there was the day-before-yesterday, when Chico took against the nice track out of Felinheli (my new favourite village, incidentally). I don’t know what he didn’t like about it, but he really, really stood firm to his initial suspicions. After a very long time we tried a different track which the señor was happy with, but by and by we came to a cattle grid, and a thorny exploratory hunt through the overgrown side gate recess revealed that it was locked.
Back again two hours later, jaded and rained-on, to where we’d begun the day, and the only remaining route was along the road. He didn’t like it, but he’d seen all the damn options. He made the mistake of insisting on a munch right by a roadside cafe sign that said ‘Coffee! Come in! (or something), so I figured I was well deserving of my own roadside graze, tied him under a tree for shelter and went inside for chips, coffee, and a little restorative time apart. It was the first time I’d left him alone like that, and I told myself that he didn’t think of it as abandonment. It was a fair while before I noticed that he could see me through the window from sixty feet away – thirty inside and thirty outside. His big round eye was fixed on me and my chips, and he wasn’t grazing any more, just staring at me, a picture of wet reproach and loneliness.
When I went back he wouldn’t move, wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t look at me. Only some really high level bribery could unravel this cold war, and thankfully the cafe owner hit on the solution – Maltesers. Even then it took some serious sweet-talking, but finally the wronged animal took a step out from under the tree.
I hope it’s obvious why I have been looking forward to this next fortnight. Chico is having a rest at an organic smallholding called Busy Bees, near Bangor, while I undertake Anglesey solo. I’d begun dreaming about charging forward unencumbered, making accurate guesses about mileage and night stops, going into shops and pubs on a whim, clearing stiles in a single bound. Perhaps I could manage the 124 miles of the Anglesey coast in a record time, like a speedboat suddenly untethered from its wayward, unreliable anchor.
But no. I’ve only done one day, and almost instantly discovered that even when resolutely stationary Chico provides a kind of momentum – I am forced to run about him thinking of reasons, solutions, treats, alternative routes. Without him I am just plodding on, my mind now empty enough that only a few thoughts rattle around in there: the realisation of how heavy my backpack is, how very full of water the air is, how unfulfilling crossing a stile is after all. I have eaten £20 worth of supplies already, partly to make my bag lighter, but mostly out of boredom, including a whole packet of kabanos sausages from the out-of-proportionally-exciting Menai Bridge Waitrose. I’ve been reading the plaques and info signs that previously just served as a handy thing to tie Chico to. I am of no interest, a donkey woman without a donkey.
And OK, I miss him, my grumpy, entertaining, inconvenient companion.