For the Love of a Dog
FOR THE LOVE OF A DOG
Every life has its peaks and troughs, but I have always been an optimist. Ms Look-On-The-Bright-Side. Ms Tomorrow-Is-Another-Day. Even when my marriage imploded after a quarter of a century, I managed to count my blessings, which were many – two wonderful sons, loyal friends, good health, a strong career, lots of hobbies – and ploughed on. I threw myself into my work, I dated other men. When I fell in love with one of them, it came as no surprise. Life was back on an even keel. Just as I had expected.
The thing about Trouble, however, is that it arrives when we dare to feel safe. When we are looking the other way. And so it was that on the afternoon my mother died I was deep into this new, contented phase of my life, rushing round my local shops, en route to a leg wax. Seeing a missed call from my sister, I didn’t call her straight back but flew into the supermarket instead. I bought bread, milk, ham, tomatoes and ran to the car, thinking only of the importance of not being late for my appointment. Then the sister called again and a cold prickle at the back of my neck told me it was serious. Mum had suffered a massive haemorrhage, she blurted through sobs, and had been given only a few hours to live.
Shock makes you calm. It’s like that moment of numbness after injury, before pain kicks in. I cancelled the leg wax. I left food for the cat. I remembered to lock the back door. I packed a toothbrush and I set off for the hospital, driving south as fast as London traffic would allow. Only one thing mattered. Even so it was the sister who made it to the bedside in time, not me. Mum was cold when I got there, but only just, and it haunts me still. Dead bodies are not so easy to hug.
Platitudes see you through the first stages of loss: Mum, aged eighty one, had had a mercifully quick end and a good innings; she was reunited with Dad, whose death twenty years before had left her devastated. But grief is a long game with its own rules. And a few months later, when the man I had fallen in love with suddenly decided to bring our relationship to a close, I hit a wall. Grieving for Mum I felt as if I had lost a chunk of my past, my ballast. With this new sorrow it was as if I had lost my future too. Some said I should chase after the man, persuade him to change his mind. But you cannot demand feelings. Love is there or it isn’t. As strong as a fact. The ground dissolved beneath my feet. A chasm opened up. And I fell in.
There was no question of throwing myself at work or anything else this time. It was all I could do to make it through each day. To realise I was capable of such despair was almost as bad as the despair itself. My old positive self was like the memory of someone else. Weeping became my default activity, regardless of where I was or with whom. Misery doesn’t give two hoots about shame. I couldn’t sleep, eat, read or even watch telly. Nothing going on around me felt real. I was too busy drowning in my own emotions. Indeed, it felt almost as if, after years of being a novelist, making up stories of imagined lives – stories with just desserts and happy endings – the harsh facts of my own, much flakier existence had finally crashed over me like a tsunami. I saw myself with new eyes: divorced, single, untethered. A flapping guy rope. Alone.
Unhappiness does all sorts of things to you. Your confidence goes for a start. You stop seeing the point of taking care of yourself. You stop wanting to go out. You stop feeling worth any attention. You feel unloved and unlovable. Above all, you feel lonely. Every writer grows used to solitariness; indeed we relish it. Books do not get written without it. But this alone-ness was different, frightening and visceral. The house, the air around me hummed. My body ached with isolation. It removed my power to think straight. It was like being struck down by an invisible disease.
In the immediate aftermath of my meltdown close family and friends rallied to my aid. They rang and visited in shifts. They put food on the table, listening with saintly patience as I talked, endlessly, about my woes. Misery is, among other things, so repetitive, so monotonous, so selfish. But as the weeks passed I knew that the intensity of such care could not last. They all had busy lives to return to and I hated to see the worry on their faces. Especially my sons. So one day I lobbed out the idea of getting a puppy, just because it was something to talk about other than my own pitiful state, an illusion of a future plan where there was none. I wanted everyone to feel it was ok to leave me alone.
In truth, the notion of actually becoming a dog owner was terrifying. I was plainly not up to looking after myself, let alone a puppy. Besides which, pre-meltdown, I had grown to love the order and peace that comes from one’s offspring having left home. A puppy would blow all that peace to smithereens. It would need training. There would be mess to clear up as well as endless exercise in all weathers. Dog hair would coat my nice furniture and pleading eyes would track my every move, burdening me with guilt as I tried to go about my daily labours. Writing was hard enough without that. As sole owner, I would also lose my freedom to come and go, jeopardising a social life already close to non-existent thanks to my new fragile state. Talk about a ball and chain.
But, somehow, one conversation led to another until one day I found myself driving to Wales to meet three eight week old golden doodles. There was no obligation to buy. It was simply a nice day out – a break from life in the abyss. Until Mabel tottered into view. The pudgiest of the puppies by far, with tufty fur the colour of clotted cream, molten chocolate eyes and apricot tipped ears, she waddled over to me for a nuzzle and then flopped onto her back, inviting some tickling of her little pink barrel of a tum. Reader, I was a goner. Supposedly the one in charge, there was no doubt that day who had the upper hand.
Mum used to say that one of the secrets to happiness was feeling needed, and maybe that was what kicked in as I drove Mabel home to start her new life in London. She curled into me, a ball of fluff, so diddy, and so afraid that I could feel her heart pounding through my jeans. The urge to protect her surged through me like a drug; the desire to do my best, to honour her puppy trust, to ensure she never missed the merry dodgems of her Welsh home.
Happiness is a slippery customer. It cannot be summoned, but arrives in its own good time, often on tip-toe when you are on the point of giving up. I fell in love with Mabel, but there was no instant ‘cure’ for my state of mind. Puppy training was tough, full of moments of humiliation as well as hilarity and triumph. Getting to grips with Mabel’s extraordinary, glorious, matting coat of blonde fur was, and still is, a daily struggle. But from the start, the sweetness of her nature was like balm. Exuberant, optimistic, sensitive, loyal – she is tonic for any soul. She loves everybody, but me most of all. She reads my moods, my body language, like a detective. The clip-clop of high heels and she doesn’t open an eye. The squeak of my trainers and she is bouncing like a loon. Every walk is a social event. People want to say hello. I have discovered the world is a friendly place after all, and that I still have a place in it.
One day, I found myself back at my desk, itching to work. The relief was momentous, like rediscovering a lost love. But it wasn’t ideas for a new novel that came to mind, but jottings about my journey with Mabel. For The Love of a Dog poured out, a memoir of a middle-aged optimist who had lost her optimism, a writer who couldn’t write; a daughter who had lost her mum, a lover who had lost her love. A grey landscape into which Mabel blew like a blessing. She has brought all the mud, chaos and mess I feared, and a happiness I could not have imagined. My too-quiet, too-sedentary novelist’s life has been turned upside down. Due to some mysterious knock-on effect I am now busier socially and with work than I have ever been. In short, I am living life again as well as writing about it.
Familiarity may breed contempt between humans, but with the right dog, exactly the opposite is true. Every day my bond with Mabel grows. I may find companionship with another person one day, but for now it is a golden doodle who is sharing my path, helping to light the way.
25th July 2018