Rest in Peace, tiny Pupkin, who died last night after an emergency admission to the vet’s. He was inordinately loved and, as you can see from this picture, taken only yesterday afternoon on his last visit to us, a miniature dachshund of consummate flair and self-possession. Nearly sixteen, he had lived a full and active life in a loving home in Edinburgh, a city suited to his genteel ways. Mentor, protector and best friend to Tiggy, Nico’s little sister, he always enjoyed coming to see us all in the madhouse here, every visit marked by a warning that this might be the last time we saw him, so frail was he getting. Yesterday, as though transfixed in catatonic fascination, he watched Nico and Tiggy tumbling and chasing like baby otters, all the time guarding their space on the rug provided for his extra comfort. When lunch arrived, he ate it purposefully and with as much pleasure as ever: food was the love of his life. We watched as he meticulously pursued a piece of cucumber around his bowl (a bowl designed to slow down gobbling eaters!), identifying it by scent rather than sight – his eyes being weak. At last he found it and, with that, rested once more. It was clear yesterday, however, that he was thinking about moving on; that Uncle Johnny had a special place ready for him and that his family and friends (particularly Uncle NuNu, who adored him) would soon have to say farewell. He gave us all the privilege of sharing his last full day with him and we will never forget his stoicism and loving presence. God bless you dear little friend.
Mid-winter is here, the days are depressingly brief and daylight itself is definitely rationed. Though it’s exciting, checking out the daily change in temperature and wind speed before we begin our trundle, some days it looks as though the sun will never rise but usually – at least by the time we get to St Aidan’s Dunes at Seahouses – there is a glimmer across the horizon, and illuminating hope returns, if only for a few, unimpressive hours. This is the time of year when our routine days begin with a run entirely in darkness and, depending on the cloud cover, this darkness that can feel quite unyielding. Getting ready takes a good bit longer: quite apart from the various layers to keep her warm and dry, Kemo Sabe now must wear a head-torch over her beanie hat so we can see her, whereas we four are decked out in dashing, high-vis jackets so she can spot us running round. Strangely though, she complains because we tend to stick beside her, threatening to trip her up, transfixed by the shadowy, flickering something in the beam of light which shines before her – our lighthouse in more ways than one. This is not a time to be especially adventurous.
Despite the defining darkness, every morning is slightly different. Some are eerily still and misty; some are windier and more hostile, initially at least; so far, few have been perishingly cold. But, whatever the prevailing atmospheric conditions, once in our stride (which means with Newman back on the lead and, indeed, back on task), it’s all rather familiar and, in its own way, unremarkable. These dark, December days are undistinguished and, for that, we are most grateful. We like these days of waiting; these ordinary days. In a world blighted by more than one kind of darkness, where all around worry and suffering supervene, we are lucky that our fireside calls us and we creatures wait for the day we can light our first candle and celebrate the turning of the year – in joy, and not because we lack warmth. How out of sorts this earthly state must be, that change is so eagerly anticipated when what is needed more, to calm and comfort so very many, is the ordinariness of which it is so easy to tire. In which regard, let us ponder the complexity of this poem by Thomas Hardy, ‘A Commonplace Day’:
The day is turning ghost,
And scuttles from the kalendar in fits and furtively,
To join the anonymous host
Of those that throng oblivion; ceding his place, maybe,
To one of like degree.
I part the fire-gnawed logs,
Rake forth the embers, spoil the busy flames, and lay the ends
Upon the shining dogs;
Further and further from the nooks the twilight’s stride extends,
And beamless black impends.
Nothing of tiniest worth
Have I wrought, pondered, planned; no one thing asking blame or praise,
Since the pale corpse-like birth
Of this diurnal unit, bearing blanks in all its rays –
Dullest of dull-hued Days!
Wanly upon the panes
The rain slides as have slid since morn my colourless thoughts; and yet
Here, while Day’s presence wanes,
And over him the sepulchre-lid is slowly lowered and set,
He wakens my regret.
Regret–though nothing dear
That I wot of, was toward in the wide world at his prime,
Or bloomed elsewhere than here,
To die with his decease, and leave a memory sweet, sublime,
Or mark him out in Time . . .
–Yet, maybe, in some soul,
In some spot undiscerned on sea or land, some impulse rose,
Or some intent upstole
Of that enkindling ardency from whose maturer glows
The world’s amendment flows;
But which, benumbed at birth
By momentary chance or wile, has missed its hope to be
Embodied on the earth;
And undervoicings of this loss to man’s futurity
May wake regret in me.
. . . and not always the good ones, either, which bring us close to someone in our hearts. Monday next will be the fifth anniversary of Uncle Johnny’s death, at the age of nearly fifteen. A splendid beast and friend, only two failings marred an otherwise steadfast and reliable character. The first was his chronic susceptibility to gastric incidents, an affliction common in golden retrievers – known for their intestinal sensitivities. From a relatively young age he would, from time to time, but on a regular basis, be afflicted by an upset stomach and it usually struck in the middle of the night, when he would summon Kemo Sabe to the back door – where she would find him standing ready to go outside – with a single, insistent ‘woof’. There followed a protracted wait, while he dawdled and dragged himself around the garden waiting for his insides to sort themselves out and he was ready to crouch and produce something. Sometimes the wait went on and on. There was no point insisting he come indoors before he was ready, as he would only have to repeat the call to action again, often just as (eventually) Kemo Sabe had finally managed to drop off again.
The number and nature of those lost and broken sleeps are still vivid, but for a different reason. At the end of his life Uncle Johnny and Kemo Sabe developed a routine: every night she expected his call and, when it came, downstairs she went and let him into the garden. It was no bother; there was no work the next day and, besides, Johnny seemed keen to pop in and out quickly. When he no longer called her and, when he no longer could do so – having left us for a life without incontinence – the aching emptiness was acute. Similarly his other little quirk: a devilish refusal, from time to time, but on a regular basis, to come and be put on the lead at the end of an outing. The hilarity of this defiance was an obvious and utter joy to him, though it drove everyone mad, with hours spent trying to ‘catch’ or corner him as he ran mockingly just out of reach, evading all comers. These were his ‘faults’, what made our old Uncle Johnny what he was, though it was easy when he was with us to wish him otherwise. But, when we think of him, it is these funny ways we remember first. The curious individualities which cause rows and drive our infuriated friends and family away are the lifeblood of the single soul we know and love. Dear Johnny, we tell young Nico (who knew you only before he came to us from that other world, where you grasp every creature to your furry chest, before birth and after death), all about you and your last day with us – the beef pies, the bowl of tea, the walk on your favourite bit of beach, Lucy’s kind gaze and gentle hands. And when she thinks of us boys with our irritating ways – my excitability and noise, NuNu’s vacancy and obsession with seaweed, Barnaby’s clinginess and tendency to sulk if he can’t have the baby he wants – Kemo Sabe ponders a time when all of these odds are made even, but the world will have gone awry, since nothing will be but what is not.
So, we salute you our dear, dear friend! Let us love each other and our foibles, and be glad.
In yesterday’s eerie pre-dawn light, with a ribbon of cloud running right along the horizon behind it, Inner Farne was transformed: our perspective on it altered, as though we saw it from above, surrounded by the sea, instead of set upon it, against the horizon – the way it actually looks, because that is the way things actually are. It took a goodly while to work out what was awry; why its dimensions and position were so changed. Bishop Berkeley would have been amused; or so Kemo Sabe said. While she pondered, we set about our routine exploration of the scents at the top of the beach, both shrouded and heightened by the extreme darkness the last vestiges of the night permits us before we set off towards Seahouses, and the strengthening rays of the sun. Truly it is indeed easy to imagine a bush a bear by night!
We anticipate the arrival in a month of the shortest day – our favourite day of the year – while currently things are darker than ever and we leave for our trundle under a starry sky and crescent moon. No wonder we can’t see clearly. Yet, we muse, how many moguls of one kind or another have mistaken and misprized things this year, seemingly despite all the reflection in the world, the considered outpourings of the ablest minds, or most experienced analysts. So much noise, so little sense – or so it seems. All of which media-noise is so unlike dear Uncle NuNu, apparently deaf to Kemo Sabe’s repeated calls each morning; the same calls we all understand and respond to, and always have; he knows exactly what those noises mean; he hears them but does not mark them, as it were. We forgive him on account of the fairies, with whom he is away.
This sorry sight eloquently expresses the arrival of winter on the north east coast, first with Storm Angus and now with persistent zero temperatures. The sands are crisp with frost, the outdoor dog bowl is solidly iced over and Kemo Sabe simply cannot keep up with refilling the bird feeders. Cold, enduring and profound, has tiptoed in the footsteps of the gale force winds which banked the sand in new dunes and forced a roiling sea to disgorge this mother and child high on the beach, having rung the life-force from them both. When first spotted, the mother seal was still watching her baby wearily through exhausted eyes, but she too gave up the fight lying beside her dead little one. This was our first sad sight of the winter months.
But life has to go on and, while the winds roar round, putting us all on edge, and the sparrows had to brave the terrifying gusts in order to build themselves up for another night huddled together in the hedges, and the cat flap closed against the north wind meant neither I nor Jeoffry could have our freedom, Newman had to make his important visit to the vet: after a whole day without food, and nearly twelve hours without a pill, he underwent his annual blood test to check how he and his liver are coping with the Epiphen he takes for his funny turns. The answer is: very well, as it happens. All except for his disinclination to pay any attention at all to commands the rest of us jump to obey. Like the media, he is in his own little world, where delightful lift-music prevails and ifs and ans are pots and pans.
I have not been well these last few days. In fact, I have been as unwell as I can ever remember: unable to eat, unwilling to jump the small distance into my place on the sofa and, when we went out yesterday morning, for a shorter trundle than usual because Kemo Sabe knows me so well she could see I still wasn’t myself, I jogged along several sedate paces behind her – demeanour and pace both entirely alien to me. As I dictate this, I am recovering. Though the vet had initially thought there was nothing much wrong a couple of magic injections couldn’t rectify, yesterday morning when it was clear I still felt really poorly, Kemo Sabe took me back in for an x-ray and, before I knew it, I was recovering from an abdominal operation during which a long, thick piece of seaweed was removed from my small intestine. There are still small bits to be passed naturally, but they are in the colon so it’s only a matter of time now I’m back on the dinners again until they emerge naturally. How I long to be back with the boys, looking up at the wonders on the television, with all the routines in place once again.
My emergency has overshadowed the production and tone of the piece I was preparing about how much fun we’ve all been having watching and responding to our amazing Olympic team. As we’re coming up to the last few days of competition, I thought I’d share some pictures of Barnaby with you, enjoying a range of activities and national achievements. Above you see him enjoying the golf, for him an unmissable spectacle as it includes the use of a single ball whose progress across the greensward is punctuated by visitations of capybara and cayman: what a hoot! As one after another the various disciplines unfolded, and the medals mounted in events as disparate as badminton, diving, dressage, gymnastics, kayaking, swimming, sailing, taekwondo, hepthathlon, not to mention the cycling – with all those races with funny titles – our interest has been held and our knowledge of human determination deepened. Hats off to all those who work so hard to become consistent performers in their field. On Wednesday, before my first abortive visit to the vet, my mind overcame matter as I ran out to retrieve my beloved ball. My return was slow and my deliberation rightly read by she who knows me better than anyone as the best sign yet that something was really, really wrong. I hope that when I am fully fit I will enjoy my running again for, truly, it is my metier and I am a champion in my own right.
‘Has Newman had his pill?’
This question, asked morning and evening, is one to which Uncle NuNu himself now greatly looks forward (if he hasn’t yet shouldered his way into position before it’s even asked) when he hears the words, so keen is he to get a treat at the same time as the dispensing occurs. In a recent post about him, I recalled Uncle Willie’s epilepsy, and this has prompted me to write about dear Newman’s own experience of his own faraway world – a world of goodness, innocence and inability to concentrate. This is because he has what the vet calls ‘epilepsy-type symptoms’ and, as a result, has a small twice-daily dose of Epiphen.
In Uncle Willie’s case, epilepsy made itself known when he had his first seizure at the age of two: a dramatic Sunday lunchtime, that, with nobody really knowing what to make of the poor dear creature who had been fine one minute – resting quietly on the mat – and then rigid and out of it the next. By the time he was rushed to meet the vet at the surgery, Willie was fully conscious again and it seemed obvious what he’d experienced. Over the next few years Willie’s fits came with increasing frequency, following the characteristic pattern of initial faraway look – eyes open, senses shut – and then the rigidity, the shaking. They were never dramatic or distressing to witness and they could be astonishingly brief: moments of contact with the angels in a world quite wild to the rest of us. Eventually the vet said it was time to medicate and, though the first dose of phenobarbital seemed worryingly strong, after the second he was back to his old self and he went on to take it thereafter without its diminishing his fun one jot. To this day he remains the only Dickens Dog to have died without euthanasia, dropping dead of a heart attack aged thirteen, just before he tackled his dinner.
Uncle NuNu’s case is rather different. He had a couple of petit mal experiences over the years – standing still, eyes fixed: absence seizures, as they are often now called. Sometimes it’s really hard to get his attention; he’s not deaf, and he’s not disobedient; it’s just that he’s away with the fairies, lift-music playing soothingly inside his head. Then he starts gulping madly, as if he’s feeling sick – a classic symptom Uncle Willie shared. This distresses him to such an extent that nothing can calm him and he simply must go into the garden; once there, though, he simply looks around for grass and has never, ever even tried to be sick. More than anything he needs calming and reassurance, which we all try to give him. He’s been on the pills for several months now and the gulping and sickness episodes have become very few and far between, though occasionally you can tell Newman feels agitated and can’t work out why. He’s had all the tests and the vet is happy for his symptoms to be controlled by medication.
We often wonder what goes on in his magical head, when he’s rolling madly with joy or sitting pondering on nothing much at all. In Nunhead Cemetery he was often haunted by the presence of the others the rest of us couldn’t see; those whose lightning-quick appearances he returned with a thoughtful glance and, very occasionally, refusal to follow a pathway through the graves. As a noisy spaniel, I wish I had his depth and mystery but as he once was quite extrovert too, perhaps I shall become more like him – and learn from him – as the years pass. When I came along, it was Uncle Johnny who took me under his wing; Newman was much younger then, less interested in avuncular duties: he has always let little Nico do whatever he likes to him, endlessly patient with his fur-chewing and comfort-seeking, even if it means his fur gets wet and a bit thin in places.
Newman adored Uncle Johnny and probably speaks with him most days, down the bottom of the garden, where the sparrows chirrup and leave him bits of fat ball to snack on – a joke they share, no doubt. Together, they compare notes about what Uncle Willie’s funny turns were like. Johnny will have told him that when he was a few months old he ate one of Uncle Willie’s pills by accident, but with no ill effects – just as the vet had predicted! We used to find the odd pill on the floor, fortunately before any of us had hoovered it up; the bit of bread NuNu has with it ensures it goes down properly. Another routine: just one of so many in our carefully crafted daily lives. One that keeps our dear furry friend grounded a bit more than he might otherwise be.
Wilkins Micawber, known as Willie, was the second of the Dickens Dogs. Willie was wonderful: big-boned, furry, gentle, sweet-natured and enormous fun. Uncle Johnny told me that when he was just a little puppy on holiday up here in Northumberland with Willie they had such a great time together – running, tumbling, letting go; every day was an adventure. Although Uncle Tommy was nearer in age to young Johnny, it was dear old Willie who was fun and, though Willie wasn’t a very bright crayon, in many ways he shines brightest of all because he was simply so very good. He was a kind of saint – the Prince Myshkin of Dickens Dogs.
He was born in the Black Country, in Tipton, laughingly called ‘the Venice of the Midlands’, one of ten pups, out of which litter one died. I expect he used to think about his lost litter-mate: I would have done. When he was collected in the spring, and was being lifted gently into the car, Old Noggsy (the original Newman Noggs) gave a look of resignation and generously made room in his world, thereafter allowing the new family member to have whatever he wanted. He was like that. In fact, I have noticed how all golden retrievers share this exceptional open-heartedness. They are very kind dogs. Very content in their essential dogginess; very centred.
Willie and Newman became a good team, moving around the country as lives changed: as a duo they were a by-word for reliability. Indeed, like all goldens, they were always there! When Willie was two he took a funny turn and the vet said he had had an epileptic fit (I said he was like Prince Myshkin). Though he went on to have more from time to time, he didn’t need medication until he was about six. As it turned out he was really suited to the pills and the rest of his life passed without incident. He lived until he was nearly thirteen and to this day is the only Dickens Dog to have died in his own time: he had a heart attack and dropped down dead in his garden.
Willie’s greatest love was swimming and he was terrific at it. This was discovered when he was really young, on his first break away at the Devon seaside, one winter’s day when the wind was wild and the waves were rolling in. Because Uncle Noggsy didn’t like getting into water much, and certainly wouldn’t have ventured in under such appalling weather conditions, they were staggered when Willie became incredibly excited as they descended the steep path to the little cove. He gathered pace and began to bark in anticipation as the smell of the sea drew closer, much to everyone’s amazement, and when he finally got on the shingle he ran into the water, into the massive waves, as though fulfilling his destiny. Astonishment! The size and ferocity of the waves concerned him not a jot: it was love at first sight! After that, though he didn’t live by the sea himself, whenever he got the chance he was straight in there, and was never happier than when joined by one or other of the family.
Willie had a lovely temperament, ever gentle and loving, ever happy and positive – his simplicity and goodness are a lesson to us all: in no way could being more intelligent have improved him one little bit. Right to the end of his life, when his back legs had failed miserably and the arthritis made running an impossibility, he still leapt out of the back of the car ready for anything, having forgotten he’d only get about ten yards before his rear end gave way. It didn’t matter to him as he lived every moment to the full. He was a glorious golden boy and we will always remember him with enormous love. Once towards the end of his life, when his hearing and eyesight had deteriorated, a person who didn’t know him well got annoyed that his big frame was in the way in a narrow corridor and they smacked him for being there. There was much dismay and the person concerned eventually left the Dickens Dogs’ lives. Uncle Johnny never forgot that. He said it was a betrayal and one of the most indefensible acts he ever witnessed.