Dressing, I glimpse through the window at a parka-bundled figure across the road, gender imperceptible, clasping the lead of a large cream-coloured dog – some kind of poodle perhaps, guessing at the curly coat. As he trotted nose-to-ground between snowbanks I saw the dog wore dark-blue booties – something that always looks slightly surreal – to protect his paws from the salt.
My thoughts peel away and a jarring pang of sadness blooms inside me as I remember Tarquin, Jess and Bimbo – loyal childhood consorts whose premature exits stole the chance to see out the days of their lives with the companions they adored.
While I will always love dogs, I think something in me has shut down, closed itself off, so that when I imagine ‘owning’ one again I see only negatives: walks in inclement weather, the smell of wet dog impregnating furniture, hair everywhere.
I can’t open myself to that kind of love again. I can’t face the loss.
The dogs in my past are bound forever to the struggles or deceptions I faced at the time, giving their loss an added potency; ties and strands snaking out from an incident like exposed electrical wires, shocking you even when you think you’re safe.
Bimbo was my companion on the farm in the years before school got in the way of real life and a name like that had any other meaning. Then one day he was gone.
I knew from the changing stories that something untoward had happened.
Our Kildare farm was my whole world, the nearby town of Athy its solar system. Shop fronts were unchanging landmarks on the map of my known universe – constellations of letters and names jumping out as I learned to read – but the farm… that I knew like the grooves and whorls on the pad of my thumb.
Tractor tire ruts set hard in mud on the strip of grass between the house and the paddock that pooled with water on wet days. The seasonal mohawk springing up with verdant impudence in the single-track lane that led to our farmyard. Craggy, lichen-patinaed trees scratching my cheek like day-old stubble as I stretched my arms around them. The smell of earth – peaty and pungent on damp days, dry and mineral-sharp in the summer. And Bimbo, black, white and tan fur warmed by the sun, poised, watchful. These were my constants, the stars I steered my life by.
But there were black holes – vortices of the unknown so powerful they sucked all reassuring familiarity into themselves and showed reality to be tremulous as Chinese shadow puppetry – a fragile façade spanning an abyss of confusion – as easily torn as a paper heart.
My world was a mysterious place where ambulances came in the night – the explanations given never definitive enough to really answer all the questions I had, the denials of things I knew to be true a shocking betrayal of the rules I’d thought unassailable – grown-ups lied?
I had questions, so many questions. Questions about the skeletons of the three kittens in the outbuilding, too-big heads domed and bare but for a few wisps of fur here and there. “What happened to them?” “Why are they still there?” “How did they die, all together, halfway up a plank?”
I had no interest in the lives of the adults around me – long unexplained absences, raised voices behind closed doors or hushed conversations in the Chemist’s – but it unsettled me when they eroded my sense of security.
The answers never really satisfied and I learned to keep my questions behind my lips.
No-one could explain where my dog star had gone. I was an adult before I learnt someone claimed he was worrying sheep and my father shot him, but even now the stories differ.
Jess was a yellow Labrador pup whose arrival in my twelve-year-old, expatriated-to-England-world succeeded my departure for boarding school by a week. I experienced her puppyhood vicariously through letters or phone calls. During school holidays, however, she quickly became the centre of my universe.
These were troubled times, with my father’s bipolar illness churning the waters of his job and his marriage. My mother visited me briefly at school one night to announce she was divorcing him. Watching her leave I struggled to feel anything beyond the sickening sense that life as I knew it was breaking apart in some distant place and I was powerless to stop it. I sat alone on the narrow dormitory bed and stared at the pattern on the duvet cover, concentrating hard on the daisies to obliterate the panic, “Oh God, Oh God, OhGod,Ohgodohgodohgod…”
A few weeks later she mentioned in passing she’d changed her mind.
Relentlessly, ceaselessly, my evolution ground on filled with house moves, school changes, sleepless nights as my parents fought downstairs – the pain and anger in their raised voices punctuated by muffled thumps and thuds and the shrill barking of agitated canine confusion.
Time passed and events escalated in tandem with it, but to me back then it seemed like an inescapable natural progression. At fifteen my father’s verbal and physical abuse was as much a part of daily life as the hurried breakfast I ate standing up before fleeing to school on my bike.
His behaviour grew more and more unpredictable, temper flaring at the slightest provocation; he kicked my sister’s rabbit to death when it bit him, marched us upstairs from our basement bedroom at three in the morning to dry a handful of items left on the draining board. His answer to any perceived insubordination, from person or animal, was to elicit immediate fear and submission. Often I ran down the steps to my subterranean refuge under a hail of abuse or glassware. I began to self-harm.
Night after night, sobbing into Jess’s fur, my arms around her warm, steady body, it felt as though we shared the same status – domesticated to endure the whims of a tyrannical ‘owner’. She was the only one in my world who listened without question or judgment, just pure uncomplicated love. Right up until she was hit by a car and my father had her put down because it was cheaper than treating her.
I never got to say goodbye.
With Tarquin I shared the briefest bond of the three dogs I grew up with. Sixteen, and raw from having anything I loved ripped away, I was determined not open myself to loss again. But I succumbed in spite of myself to the charm of the black Labrador puppy. By now my parents had separated, though my father was a constant visitor to our rented home and still liked to impress his authority.
Shortly after my seventeenth birthday, I became homeless and it was some time before I saw Tarquin again. Somewhere in the intervening months, I learned he’d defended my younger sisters in a vicious assault by an escaped inmate from a nearby Young Offenders Institution with a conviction for knife attacks on women.
Our paths crossed in the most unlikely of places: a basement flat my father rented where I was forced to stay temporarily as I struggled to get my life on track. My mother and sisters had moved a hundred miles away leaving Tarquin behind with him. I’d finished college, found a job, and needed somewhere to stay while I earned enough to rent somewhere of my own.
My father worked shifts in the bar of a nearby hotel and often came home in the early hours in the mood to listen to music. Loud music. Even sleeping in the bath I couldn’t escape the disturbance. And I was constantly on edge, waiting for tell-tale precursors to violence. But the tipping point came when I arrived home from work one day and Tarquin wasn’t there.
“Oh, I gave him to the RSPCA.”
It was happening again.
But this time I was determined to change it. I spent the following day at work ringing around local RSPCA animal shelters to locate him and arranging transport to pick him up. With hindsight it wasn’t the most sensible move – I worked all day, there was no way I could keep a dog (I ended up taking him to my mother and she had him re-homed on a farm), but all I could comprehend, the only way I could fight the feeling of powerlessness my father continued to exercise over me, was to make something happen myself.
It’s a sorry tale isn’t it, this catalogue of loss and disappointment? Maybe one day, when we’re settled, I’ll think about getting another dog and work in an ending of hard-earned redemption. Or maybe I’ll just chalk it up to experience and leave it in the past.