If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The tale of the dog

This post will be unashamedly sentimental and soppy. If that bothers you, look away now. There's plenty of stuff on motorbikes and tools and stuff elsewhere on this blog.

Jem was a Springer Spaniel, and was about 4 or 5 when I moved in with her owner. There are two types of Springer, Welsh and English. The English type is heavier-built and has a coarser coat; the Welsh variety is much more slender and elegant, with a silky coat. I am sure that Jem was a Welsh Springer, but her KC certificate said English. But she was sleek and shiny, with liver and white markings, and I thought she was fab. Actually, at first I thought she was a nuisance, as she had Anna's sole guardian for many years, and she didn't relinquish her responsibilities lightly. But we quickly learned to get along, although I don’t think she ever trusted me fully.

I could go on for pages about what a great dog she was, but I shall keep it brief. She was never trained as a gundog, but she had certain responses built in. At a command of "seek!", she would dive into the nearest bushes and work the undergrowth until something - anything - ran out at the other end. Sometimes a rabbit, sometimes a pheasant, sometimes a rat, but she always found something.

She was a little madam at times. If we went shopping and left her alone, she would turn her back to the car, look over her shoulder, and then pointedly look away. You could almost hear the disapproving sniff.

We live in the countryside with fields all around and a few holiday cottages nearby. Every change-over day, she would patrol all the cottages, introduce herself, and accept a sandwich. Most holidaymakers thought she was a star.

A very few were anti-dog and gave us severe warnings about 'having a dangerous animal on the loose', not realising that, unless you were a rat, there was no more harmless creature in the county. One great success story was one of these families who complained on day one of their visit. We kept her in for the duration, but she must have wandered off at some point, as on the day they left, the father knocked at our door. We were expecting a tirade of the usual my-child-could-have-been-killed nonsense, but instead he asked what kind of dog she was. Jem had (sneakily) gone to see them half-way though the week, the children had fallen for her, and had persuaded Dad to get them one just like Jem. Result.

When she got to 12 or 13 years of age, she started to get health problems. Her joints became stiff, and she kept getting painful abscesses. We must have spent hundreds on medication for her, but in the end the vet told us that she was too weak for another operation, and that the next time we came to see him would be the last. He knew she was terrified of the vets, so he agreed to visit us on the way home one night, and he put her to sleep on the lawn with both of us holding her. We wanted to bury her on her 'patch', so earlier in the day I had asked a friend with a JCB to come and dig us a big hole. He couldn't do the job himself, but sent one of his lads. I met him at the appointed spot, halfway down her favourite stretch of the lane.

All right, boss?

Yeah, sort of.

Where do you want the hole?

I pointed.

Big dog, was he?

She. And no, she wasn't very big at all.

At this point I found I had urgent business about 100 yards away up the lane and out of sight of this strapping lad. Afterwards, I gave him a fiver.

We buried her in the hole and worked harder than necessary to fill it in. The work seemed therapeutic. Finally, we had finished, and went back to the house for a cup of tea. As we stood in the kitchen, looking glumly at each other, there was a tap on the window. It was a man who had stayed last year in the cottage next door, who had just arrived after a long journey from Birmingham.

Is Jem around? The boys have been talking about her non-stop since we left. They'd love to take her out for a play.

I didn't know what to say. I mumbled something like:

Sorry, we buried her ten minutes ago.

He was stunned and very apologetic. No need, of course; he wasn't to know. But the boys took it badly, apparently. He felt guilty about asking; we felt guilty that he felt guilty, and it was a bit of a sorry exchange. They never came back.

Later, I made a little marker for where we had left her. Solid oak, hand-carved, just her name and her vital dates. It's still there, and I tip my hat to it every time I pass.

I'm normally fairly unsentimental, but if anyone ever says they are grieving over the loss of an animal, they have my utmost sympathy. People dying is always complex, but with animals it is simple. They were here, and now they are gone, and that's the biggest difference in the world.

Animals, eh? You let them into your life, look after them, and they tear you apart. We gave it a week or two, and then decided that the house was just too quiet, so we got another dog. But that's for another day.

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