Saturday, 10 November 2007
The first pet I remember was a dog named Patch. He was a border collie mix with an incredibly mild temperament, extremely well behaved and affectionate but not fawning. I am told that he used to stand guard by my pram (yes, when I was a baby…) and growl at any strangers who approached. I grew up with him around, and used to love walking (no lead was necessary) with him. We never had a crossed word. He lived until he was eighteen, which makes a mockery of the 7 dog years to one human year thing, doesn’t it? Because by that reckoning he would have been 126. He may have been, along with many other dogs I have known, of biblical stock. Some I have heard of lived to 20 and beyond – a miraculous lifespan of more than 140 years by the discredited 7 to 1 reckoning.
In any case, his death was particularly difficult. We watched him gradually decline. He used to really enjoy skipping around the corner with me to my grandmother’s house, where he would be sure to get a bit of fat off the joint. My uncle John’s dog, Jip, who was a fierce little ratter, would be locked in the coal shed for (the well-founded) fear that he might attempt to savage anything that came within snapping distance. Once, the little sod bit me on the palm of my hand, and I can still see the mark - like a stigma – in my mind’s eye.
One day, Patch and I were making our way to my grandmother’s house in Lime Grove and Patch just suddenly stopped in the street and lay down. He didn’t appear distressed, he was not panting and he showed no obvious signs of pain. He just lay there and tried (and failed) to respond to my calls for him to catch up. I waited with him, crouching down and stroking his brush of a tail, and in a minute or two, he got up again and we made it to Nan’s house.
Over the next few weeks, these bouts of collapsing grew increasingly frequent and I remember the look of concern on my mother’s face. I was too young to understand – perhaps I was 14 – and could not read the signs of approaching mortality in the way that the adults could. Patch continued to deteriorate, and was eventually confined to his basket in the kitchen, his hind legs unable to carry him any longer. I brought him his food and water and in the end had to lift the bowl towards his mouth so that he could eat and drink.
I was with him, alone in the house, when he died, and it was a truly tragic event for me. I told my mum what had happened and then I went for a long walk, the occasional tear stinging my eyes. At last, Don came and carried him out to the garden. I helped to dig his grave. There was never another pet quite like Patch.
We took on a puppy a couple of years later. His name was Ringo, and he was just a really arresting little ball of cute when I first saw him curled up in the chair one day as I arrived home from school.
He was still a puppy when one evening (it was quite common for us to do this) my cousin, my friend and I decided to go for a winter walk out to one of the hills which bordered our town. The fog was incredibly thick – so much so that you could literally just see your hand in front of your face. Ringo somehow slipped his lead, and frantic calling for him yielded no results. With me in tears, we headed home, trying to think of what to say to my mum. As we walked down the road to my house, my cousin suddenly shouted:
“Look! It’s Ringo!”
There he was, skipping along, trailing his lead behind him. Somehow, he had managed to track us through town – a distance of around 3 miles and across two main roads and a railway line. I had never in my life been so happy to see man or beast and I hugged and kissed him repeatedly.
Despite this piece of luck (or perhaps Lassie-like skill) however, Ringo’s was to be a doomed life. He suffered with terrible and violent epilepsy and seeing him during and immediately after his fits was extremely upsetting. He would convulse, lying on his side, foaming at the mouth and making straining noises. At first, the fits were quite rare, but then grew increasingly common. My mum used to get in a state about it. When he came round, he would be disoriented and aggressive, staggering around snarling, foaming at the mouth and bumping into things. We were given barbiturates to crumble into his food, and they seemed to work at first, although they made him drowsy. After a while, they became less and less effective, and he would be fitting several times an hour until exhaustion took hold. At last, we made the decision to have him put down, and I don’t think he even made it to the age of three. Poor Ringo.
I can remember a couple of cats from my childhood, and one in particular. It was a black she cat (‘queen’ just doesn’t work for me, somehow, despite the fact that it is the correct term) I think. Whilst looking for some orange squash in the kitchen, I accidentally stood – very hard – on the cat’s tail as it sat staring at the cupboard. It let out a terrible shriek and simply froze where it sat. I seem to remember that it stayed there for hours, and my mother became quite worried about it. I’m not sure what happened to it in the end.
But then, there’s cats and there’s cats, isn’t there? The other day, I overheard some people talking about their night. It was one of those “Did you see so-and-so on TV last night…?” Then one person said:“Yeah, I put the cats in their room…”
I found it quite unsettling, the thought that the cats (plural felines should only be rural felines, imho) had their own room, and I wondered what life was like in that particular household. How did it smell? What was the detail of the relationship between the man and the woman, and how did the cats fit into this?