I am utterly besotted — with a Labrador and a Corgi called Archibald and Augustine. The couple take pride of place on the screensaver of my iPhone and every time I look at their expectant faces and coats of ginger and cream fluff my heart soars with happiness. I smile into my phone like a grandparent cooing over their baby ancestor.
The other day, at an AA meeting, I showed my screen saver to a fellow in recovery. When they didn’t fawn in the appropriate manner, exuding joy and admiration, I felt severely put out. As though my new born baby had been dismissively shrugged off.
I am one of those people I never used to understand — and they aren’t even my dogs!
I’ve known some other ‘dog people’ on my travels. My grandmother was a dog person, although unlike some other people, she wasn’t too worried what anyone else thought about her babies. There was no doubt in my mind my grandmother loved those dogs more than her daughters and me. And when my mother inherited a large fortune from her, but she left me a measly £2,000 (I was expecting to be able to buy myself a home), my mother was quick to point out £2,000 was the same amount my Nan had bequeathed to Battersea Dogs Home (by coincidence I lived near Battersea Dogs Home at that time).
My mother told me this to spite me, no doubt about it. She never relayed how she had faired, but I knew it was a lot better than I had.
Asking about money in my family was forbidden, like enquiring about the sex life of an acquaintance (or even a friend). You just didn’t do it. All financial matters were strictly secret, like with the Royal Family. Apart from when the granddaughter gets the same lump sum as a dogs home.
I was severely hurt when my mother imparted where I stood on the ladder of matriarchal responsibility. And her spite. But then, when I thought about it, if my grandmother viewed me with the same affection as dogs, I wasn’t drawing the short straw at all. But it was a small consolation nonetheless.
In the family photo album at my nan’s, past dogs were there to be admired. A couple of boxers, one of those dogs with the ponytail fridges (that I remember) and the Boston Terriers. One of them was called Lucy and it used to yap away in a very annoying manner and race about in my grans huge open plan living area; it’s little back legs spinning ferociously and yet strangely out of synch with its front half. When she took a rest on the carpet her back legs were strangely contorted behind like frogs legs. She was a curious little creature, walked every day, in all weathers, in Richmond Park, which was behind my gran’s back garden.
The other dogs person who stands out in my mind is A, who lived up the road from me in my last London residence. A’s beloved hounds were an old black Labrador and a similarly elderly Pitbull Terrier. They were named after a Frank Zappa song and a literary Wizard. A was ‘in recovery’ and a true believer in the theology of John Cooper Clark — “Dog spelt backwards is God,” which she could often be heard quoting. A definitely loved her dogs more than people and would no qualms in saying so.
I’d always felt this preference for furry friends over human beings to be something of a cop-out. How easy it must be to love a being that is so loyal and devoted, no matter how you treat it. Like children that never grow up and become unruly and demanding. But perhaps I was simply projecting one of my childhood traumas, and resentments, onto the (good) dog owner. When I had taken that fateful turn into adulthood from being a child, by narcissistic mother could not take the challenge, and promptly ran away from home leaving me in the ‘care’ of a string of very avant garde (drug addicted alcoholic) nannies. Not that she was exactly motherly before that! Had I remained like a furry person, I’m sure my mother would have partially loved me until the end of time.
But with Augustine and Archibald it’s different.
I was watching Rupert Sheldrake describe the spiritual life on YouTube yesterday. He had about 14 practices, one of which was spending time with animals. Part of his reasoning was that an animal will bring your attention into the present moment. When you are throwing a stick or ball, he pointed out, it’s hard not to be fully present for your pet. I thought of A & A racing across Newport Beach last year, how lively Augustine became (the Corgi). He would simply race off into the sunset like he was starving hungry and after a rabbit. This was quite in contrast to his usual relaxed demeanour and lovely to behold. Like Sheldrake said, dogs really live in the moment, and spending time with them helps to open ones eyes.
Over the first lockdown I spent quite a bit of time with A & A, going on various walks in local beauty spots with their dad (I am delightfully known as ‘Auntie Ruth’). It was lovely to spend time with them all on these much needed reprieves from indoor constraints imposed by Covid, and a deep affection for these pooches was nurtured and established.
My dear friend thoroughly loves his dogs, and treats them accordingly. Actually, as I pointed out to him one day, his doglets are definelty looked after better than my mum looked after me: regular meals, two walks a day, clean fur, respect, conversation, playtime and affection.
One of the nice aspects of knowing A & A for me is that I am able to access an uncomplicated reserve of affection and adoration for another being, in this case dogs. How nice it is to have something to love, even though I don’t spend much time with them; though S sends me pictures and tells me about their welfare. That feeling of happiness such feelings generates is welcome and uncommon for me, never having given birth or had animals myself. Although I did have some animals in childhood — a rabbit, tortoises, hampster and a cat. I did love these animals as well, especially my cat Rueben, who kept me company in the lonely hours of my childhood.
My mother left me alone a lot when I was a kid, after she parted ways with her theatre company — Cunning Stunts — and started teaching music in the evenings. From the ages of eight till I was about eleven. I used to get very frightened, alone in our south London flat, and would sometimes take refuge in the airing company, when the solace of television had worn thin. I remember Reuben standing outside the cupboard meowing for me to open the door, which was slightly ajar. I was worried that if an intruder broke in, and I was seriously afraid it was going to happen, then Reuben would alert them to my hiding place. And so I used to open the door and let him jump in and sit purring beside me. The two of us sitting in the dark waiting for my mother to come back.
I recently read somewhere that animals can pick up on, and react to, the moods of its owner. I thought of Reuben, how terrified I was when I was little, and how he provided comfort in my distress. I also thought of A & A, although they have come to know a happier, older version of myself, which, like them, is a blessing.