So, where did it all begin, this devotion to animals? Was it with the fish? No, not dog fish, but those five overcooked carrots that popped up to feed on ants' eggs every evening, and every morning had to be fished from behind the sideboard. Had they had delusions of grandeur during the night and been leaping like salmon? Who knows, but they were hell bent on suicide and I was hell bent on picking up the clammy creatures and plopping them back in the tank. Perhaps this awakened some sense of caring, however futile, for inevitably, one by one, they failed to make it, turning stiff and silvery in their suffocation. Something warmer and fluffier was required.

Smudge was warm and fluffy, with fleas. She'd probably picked up these from the vet's, when taken to be spayed. Post-op., with the hair shaved from her side and prickly stitches sticking out, Smudge was in need of a little T.L.C. She found that being tucked into my doll's pram was greatly to her liking and greatly enjoyed being wheeled around. For my part, I adored her, for what appeal was there in a cold, hard doll compared to that of a wriggly kitten with flashing eyes, a mouth that mewed, and fleas.
For some reason my mother didn't like the fleas. She put Smudge on the table and powdered her. Clouds of the stuff regularly filled our living room, but so did the fleas. Eventually, I was told that Smudge had been given to an elderly neighbour who could deal with such things. I don't think I believed this and for years after I had nightmares about back alleys and dustbins and witches.

As a child, I viewed Smudge's departure as nothing short of cruelty but, somewhat perversely, it was the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty (to Animals) that provided my next warm and fluffy companion.

I can still smell the gasping damp of those kennels and hear the hollow barking of countless, caged canines. Neither they nor I knew their impending fate, but eyes pleaded and paws scrabbled as I, torn by sadness, searched on. Tim was chosen. Tim was black and handsome. He came home, bringing with him a silent companion, picked up from his life on the streets. Distressingly, distemper took him. This time I did believe.

The best cure for grief was replacement. Warm and fluffy she wasn't. Sleek and sexy she was. Not that I understood Susie's gyrations while clamped to my legs. Nor why my mother would not allow her to sleep on my bed, as had poor Tim. Mysteriously, Susie disappeared, but I must admit to being not as nearly attached to her as she had been to me.

By this time I was old enough to have a paper round, earning enough to pay for a half hour ride each week. I'd loved my black dog, Tim, and now I loved a black pony called Darkie. Darkie and I hacked to local shows, not to enter for ‘Best Turned Out' as, having only one eye, Darkie had to wear blinkers and, having only paper round money, I had to wear fly-fronted, hand-me-down jodhpurs and a ‘hard' hat that met in the middle. No, Darkie and I entered for Musical Poles and strove so hard against the Priscillas of the Pony Club that we were down to the last two when the sandwiches I'd eaten earlier decided it was time to show what they were made of. Darkie and I trudged from the ring in disgrace.

Courtesy of Christmas tips, and with two hands black from newpaper print, I and ‘my' 12 hands, black pony hacked miles to the Boxing Day Meet. After all, hunting wasn't only for the Penelope Philpotts of this world. Actually, it was. Darkie and I arrived wearily-wobble-legged and late. Too late! I believe the terms, ‘Blinkered' and ‘Gone Away', would apply here.

One thing often on offer, at Darkie's ramshackle stables, was a choice of unwanted puppies. The promiscuous bitch was a merle collie but, of her latest litter, only the runt was left and about to be ‘disposed of '. Risking the wrath at home, I tucked this tiny, wall-eyed scrap into my bicycle basket and that's where Tammy spent much of her early life, travelling to and fro. Trust a working dog to take advantage!

Rufus was next in line. Not Rufus the Red, but Rufus the Black. A puppy as near to being a Labrador as a mongrel can be. Not that I knew about pedigree in those days, I simply had a thing about black dogs. Rufus would ride pillion on my brother's motorbike and dance to records. Devastatingly, it turned out that his rhythmical twitch had nothing to do with the music: Saint Vitus' Dance had struck and Rufus' nervous system was shot. I can't write the next bit.

In pre-vaccination days, these diseases took their toll, but heartbreak after heartbreak made me more determined. I'd heard of a litter of Labs. in the town, a bus ride away. A nervous search of an urban terrace brought me Ben: five shillings worth of black rubber that wee'd on my knee on the return journey, upstairs on the number 22.

Perhaps being town bred had given Ben an inborn immunity or maybe he was the first of my dogs to be vaccinated. Whatever, Ben shared my teenage years like a third sibling and later he shared my early twenties as my constant, twisting, slobbering companion-of-the-car. Not the first manic Lab. to rip the stuffing out of seats, or out of hearts.

Miss him still.

You have no rights to post comments