Surviving the Molten Dog Days

/ by John Stubbs

The “dog days” of July and August occupy the period when, just before dawn, Sirius rises above the eastern horizon. More loosely, these days comprise the hottest stretch of a true breathless summer.

For the ancients, Sirius brought drought and madness. In my mind, the dog days will always create a vexed bond between thoughts of enforced transportation and despondent inactivity – against a background of periodic hysteria. They recall epic childhood trips along mist-covered Welsh roads, to catch the car ferry for our annual stay with my grandparents, near Dublin. These molten days evoke, too, the strange doldrums of the long school break, so longed-for all year and yet, after a week, often mournfully superfluous.

During the holidays, as during most weekends and evenings, my parents were forever telling their four spirited children to shut the bloody hell up. Like us, however, they were prone to quarrel, have accidents and encounter obstacles, and to make their feelings heard when they did. It was an exclamatory, if not a tumultuous household.

Once a year, this excitable collective would squash itself into our temperamental Fiat 127, for the drive to the port of Holyhead in North Wales. My father brooded for days beforehand about possible mechanical setbacks: The perennial danger of a puncture, the engine overheating on the climbs, or failing to start at all, due to a pronounced distaste for damp. Over the years, he reconstructed most of the wheel arches, and a good part of the doors from fiberglass, and the car’s structural fragility was a torture to him. The night before our departure, he never slept; and Mum, who doesn’t drive, would be spiritually exhausted from shrinking our luggage to a size the Fiat’s trunk could hold.

Upon leaving, never as early as Dad wished, every expedition brought a new living nightmare. We worked in shifts at being car-sick and disgruntled, fought among ourselves incessantly; drinks were inevitably spilt and precious toys dropped under seats – sometimes with malice of forethought. Some vital piece of equipment would always be lost or left at home. Then the triumph of reaching the port was usually short-lived. Once, when he had parked us in the ferry queue, Dad placed our tickets on the dashboard, only to watch them blow out through the open window. Another time, as we waited, a wasp crawled up the leg of his shorts, and when his cries and curses faded, we wondered, in anguish, whether his injuries would permit him to drive the car the last few hundred yards onto the boat.

Such incidents have naturally long been absorbed into the comic folklore of our family. Yet at the time, my parents seemed quite regularly on the verge of collapsing with the strain, and crucial intervals of summer would pass in a state of near-emergency. As a young boy, I was always eager to embark; at the same time, I became convinced that we would end up at the bottom of the Irish Sea. I remember leaning on the railings up on deck, and looking down at the torn embroidery of foam on the black water, far below. I felt the ship might capsize at any second.

Since I moved abroad more than a decade ago, I have admired people who know how to enjoy summer, and also how to endure it. Of course, the Continental situation puts the month of Sirius in quite another light: In England, we only have puppy days, by comparison to the wolfish heats of central or southern Europe.

I live with my wife and family in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, where I work as a school teacher. Most years, we are lucky enough to spend a week or two by the sea in Croatia. Although I was instantly beguiled by the Adriatic, and the wild steep rock of the coastline, for a long time I found it difficult to let go, to float – and after the first swim of the day, the sweltering stasis of the following hours was almost an agony. Enjoying a day on an Irish or English beach requires a sort of hardiness; by teatime, one feels proud of having survived. In Croatia, there is little if anything of that. At moments I would relax slightly, fall under the spell of a novel or tune into the bleating of nearby insect life, only for a wave of existential urgency to break over me. If I nodded off, a pine needle falling on my chest would trigger a panic that any sane person nearby would find either hilarious or frightening. The outcome was that I was very bothersome to be around; distant, irritable, pining for work.

One afternoon in Croatia this summer, as I listened edgily, in a fretful calm, to the local cicadas rival the noise of a billion castanets, on closing my eyes, I saw the buckles of the beige faux-leather suitcase that went with us, when I was a child, to Dublin. For years now the case has held our family photos from that time, and rests on top of a wardrobe in my parents’ house. The illusion I walk around with each day is that the suitcase is closed, or that the pictures it contains have stopped moving, shouting and sometimes running after tickets in the wind, when they are very much alive in my nervous system.

It occurred to me later, moreover, that I have added images of my own to the museum of dog-day horrors. My wife and I have had our share of trials on the road: A “change oil” light glaring at us, miles from anywhere; maniacs overtaking us like gladiatorial charioteers; a baby wailing tirelessly in the back, and on occasion spurting fountains of white milky vomit; and, needless to say, our own emotional meltdowns and outbreaks of migraine, seasickness and misanthropy. There was the foldable cot that reduced me to tears by refusing to unfold; there was the balcony on which I found myself locked out one evening. There was the cliff edge my two-year-old ran towards, escaping my grip and avoiding my desperate last grab, only to stop, just short of the precipice, when a dog’s bark distracted him.

There will be countless distresses, in other words, that live on in the nerves and the bloodstream – but as proof that you have survived them, and that you deserve your rest in the shade, regardless of mosquitoes and memories. The real catastrophes of travel are obviously of another order. Nobody should be spared the challenges or denied the joys of proper holidays.

John Stubbs

was born in 1977 and studied English at Oxford and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge where he completed a doctorate in 2005. Donne: The Reformed Soul was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Reprobates was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.