Yesterday there was a gathering, and words of praise and thanks were spoken for a life that had touched ours. The resting place is quiet, peaceful and troubled only by the wind and rain from above and the badgers and foxes from the neighbouring fields. The words of George Herbert were sung over a simple wicker coffin and we banished hobgoblins and foul fiends from our minds, as Bunyan bade us. A long life and a good one.
Today we wrestled with the wind, a bit further down the coast by way of an outing. We boys freed our minds and tested our jaws on a new seaweed crop, under the distant shadow of Dunstanburgh Castle. Bright sun, icy chills and penetrating rain alternated, wetting our fur and coating our faces with sticky sand: all in a day’s work for a native Northumbrian, of course. Christmas, with its frills and furbelows seems a long way away, but I am hopeful, for the twinkling tree of blue by the front door, and the sparkling fence of white alongside it suggest some further fun ahead.
If, when you look into my eyes one day, you can say I did all well – in good heart – and only got it wrong because I didn’t understand or hadn’t been taught better, then I will have been the best I can – like Uncle Jonny, or Uncle Willie, or even the great Noggs himself. Heaven knows he made enough mistakes, and he a legend and a lesson to us all. He had been known to frown, and even growled quite threateningly when infirmity began to catch his sides with pain of which he couldn’t otherwise speak and no one could suspect. Barnaby wants too much, of love and everyone’s attention; our Newman wants his own way, or he sulks. I am noisily impatient for life’s riches. We are all flawed. But we cling on and are let in under the table where the sandwiches are laid, and shelter found. Despite our faults, we find a place with Lazarus. As someone famous once said: for us there is only the trying; the rest is not our business.
The day after Ten Blankets died, the dawn was gloriously bright despite the fact that there had been woeful little sleep that night and minds were numb. The sun’s blush can be seen here kissing Newman’s neck, as he sits that morning thinking about another kind of altered landscape in our lives. We have earned our keep this week, I can confide, and that frame – like Barnaby’s and mine – has done its share of burden-bearing.
Here my tail is wagging to the left, which – as someone famous said – indicates my own insecurity and unhappiness that dawn, something I rarely feel as I usually have an irrepressible joy about me which expresses itself in the song of spaniels. Every night this erupts noisily as I anticipate the moment when I can collapse exhausted on to Boggis, boney biscuit downed in a couple of bites. Then I am out like the proverbial light. It is, I realise now, not so for them. Lately there have been terrible stirrings all through the night: kettles boiled, milk warmed, herbs infused, lists compiled and – even more extraorinarily – the computer turned back on despite the unearthly hour. I have attended sensitively, alert but unobtrusive on my furry bed, one ear cocked lest I should hear a sob, occasionally and very tactfully drawing attention to myself by the odd brief sally back and forth through the catflap. But Kemo Sabe has wandered in her mind, staring abstractly and stirring regularly, alone in her imagination. All I can do is to offer my warmth, as she holds me to her during the evening, and I fall asleep without even trying. I pray wordlessly that her day will end in longed-for rest. Even a spaniel can be silent when he must.
Today’s date is so remarkable that there will not be another one like it in any of our lifetimes. And yesterday was an important day, too: on it Old Man Ten Blankets passed quietly into memory. When Kemo Sabe returned from her daily visitation, it was clear that things had changed, changed utterly. After nearly a hundred years, and of course that means all her considerable lifetime, he was no longer alive.
The finality of death is striking and shocking; as those who read my ponderings regularly know, Uncle Jonny’s passing still plays upon my mind, and I am but a humble spaniel who knew him only briefly. What is also clear is that he lives here still, every day in our thoughts and words, our laughter and our recollections. Such is a life: springing up and falling, a fountain of possibilities. It is late but she is still here with me in the kitchen; I am the only one awake and listening to her heart. I will make sense of it for her, for all of us.
Last night, I lay by the fire within Kemo Sabe’s arms, and fell asleep as she rubbed my chest. My eyes rolled with delight as unconsiousness overtook me: I have missed her so much. We all have. And she has missed the pleasure of relaxing with us, too. The last ten days, with Ten Blankets so terribly ill, have forced us to pull together even more than we usually do. Everyone is tired out and perturbed, our tummies in a constant tumble. Routines have been more than usually disrupted and the one which has so far always held fast – the morning run – yesterday went out the window as well after there was a pre-dawn escape into a frosty unknown which meant absolutely nothing to any of us but left us all disorientated. We are resourceful and cheery beasts, however, and take each day as it comes, our confidence shining as bright as this morning’s sun. Somewhere in land from here she watched the dawn rise over a hospital roof while we walked on a different stretch of sand and, inevitably, the light returned and, with it, our path became clear once again. Only the day before, on a calm and balmy morning for November, in the jolly breakers rolling on to the beach as we ran we spied within them a comic bull seal, rolling like a log on his back, his flippers grasped in fun in front of him like a sea lion, playing the tide for laughs. All unlooked for and unexpected, his self-conscious happiness brought a day of dullness to life, reminding us that round the corner the road’s direction is its own business, and that dogs are not the only creatures without maps. We tried to film it but without success but we post the result, nevertheless. Trust me, the seal is there in the surf but the quality of the camera means it’s impossible to make it out. This seems quite metaphorical to me.
This last few days we have each had some carefully cut coins of sausage with our jellies and mixer: a delicious treat and a very rare occurrence, it has to be noted. Yes, I know! Sausages – even the best as are these – aren’t that nutritionally sound and moreover they have to be cooked but I think a great many dogs would readily agree that they are completely and utterly delicious. In fact they are so delicious that they have an incandescent quality about them which brings a broad grin to the face of any dog lucky enough to be getting any. Uncle Jonny particularly liked the fact that when staying away in an hotel a whole sausage would be smuggled back to the bedroom in a napkin, and doled out to him in bite-sized pieces. I too have now experienced the joy of this heavenly wait, confident that there will be enough sausage to go round the three of us. For years, Uncle Jonny’s gastric problems were addressed by ready-grilled sausages, which seemed to agree with him no end; special Tupperware containers sat in the fridge with the grilled snorkers lined up temptingly, some cut up ready for scattering over the cruckles. The sausage, moreover, has a primal function in the relationship of dog to mankind, as every dog learns as he grows up and as science has now demonstrated. I heard it from Uncle Jonny, and he from Uncle Willie who in turn learnt it from the Great Noggs himself. The story goes like this:
Once upon a time, a very very long time ago, a pack of hungry wolves clung together forlornly on a shivering hillside while the winter wind blew their fur close to their skinny sides. It was a truly terrible time, the bitterest night of the winter. For days the wolves had hunted in vain for a fat rabbit or a slow raccoon but there was nothing to be found, even after hours and hours of fruitless tracking in the snow. Seeing a glow growing brighter and thinking the sun might be rising at last, the wolves looked down on to what they soon made out to be a gathering fire, around which was huddled a group of human beings – their bitterest enemies in the battle for life. They had never edged so close to people before but the most mouth-watering smells began wafting up from the fire, so appetising and savoury that the hungriest wolf couldn’t help howling out loud, throwing his head back as the pain in his stomach gripped tighter. To the wolves’ surprise the men didn’t run away. Instead one of them threw a piece of cooked meat over in their direction, making encouraging noises. ‘If we take that food, we will for ever lose our independence,’ warned the wildest of the wolves. ‘The freedom of the plains; the right to forge our own destiny; to feast when we have plenty and the dignity of starving when we cannot find anything to eat. If you approach those people and take what they offer you, you will become their creatures, never knowing hunger but forever dependent.’ The others looked confused. This was deep stuff. However, hardly pausing for a moment more, as one they left the true wolf howling on the frozen hillside, and trotted daintily and meekly into the presence of a warm and welcoming meal, and the arms of those who had provided it.
And that, dear readers, is the story of the sausage. And the beginning of the story of the dog.