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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dandelions

I go outside to mow the grass. It's an easier task now that the dog is no-longer around using the garden as an open-sewer. Not that I minded particularly, it goes with the territory, you have a dog - you have to clear up its mess. And then they die and you're surprised by the odd perk that is thrown up.  I've no-one to share this little gem with as I was the only one that ever cleaned it up anyway but I can't help but feel a few small throbs of pleasure at this sudden 'petit cadeau' of serendipity.

I carry the mower out from the garage and lug it up to the grassy area. The grass maybe clear of dog shit but its been replaced by a scattered and disorderly congregation of dandelions.  Affrays of dandelions who lurch, drunken and provocative, across the grass in careless clusters like stumbling C-list WAGS on a Saturday night out. I plan to annihilate them with the Flymo. Who likes dandelions?

Well actually the old man next door used to.

My elderly Norwegian neighbour Frankel, who died a few months ago, used to plead with me, with a pressing delicacy, to leave the dandelions alone, as he could never understand what they had done to deserve such brutish and unified hatred.

'But they're weeds Frankel and if you don't get rid of them they'll just take over!'

'Well, would that be so bad? they are such harmless and happy little things!'

'But they're weeds!'

'But they are beautiful!'

Frankel, with his long straggly white beard, who spoke softly through his Norwegian accent, ate a clove of fresh garlic every morning and daily performed a series of unique and somewhat haphazard 'stick' exercises. The 'stick' exercises were devised to keep himself supple when younger and he continued them until well into his 80's.

These mainly consisted of him twirling and weaving any available stick or large leafless branch in and out of his legs and arms in ever-increasingly dangerous and wildly enthusiastic circles. Sometimes he would suddenly start stick hurling and whirling in the middle of a conversation, his lithe elderly body bobbing and dipping with ease. The stick would swoop within an inch of your nose so you always had to be ready to jerk your head back with speed to avoid a good-natured collision. He always smiled when performing the exercise and he always made me smile too. And if a stick didn't get you in the face then you could be more or less knocked sideways by the air-vaporising pungency of his powerful Allium-infused breath.

Frankel was a Quaker, a gentle man and very sweet. He always spoke up for the misunderstood, the voiceless under-dog. Even the dandelions. His accent caused him at times to be unwittingly amusing as well.

I once spent a very puzzled few minutes, suppressing nervous laughter, and pondering on what on earth he was talking about when he sprang out of his back door with exuberance, a few years ago, to cheerfully greet me one early April morning.

'Oh at last Spring is here and I shall get new frocks!'

'What?'

'Frocks! Soon I shall have lots of new frocks!!' 

'Erm...what?'

He looked at me with the patient tolerance of one who was explaining a simple fact to a simple-ton.

'First comes the frock-spawn...and then come the frocks!'

I plug the mower into the extension cable and then feed it back along the garden to the sun-room and into a socket. As I walk back I become aware of voices and people moving around next door, I can just catch glimpses through the apple blossom but I don't recognise any of them. The gardens are close together and I never feel polite mowing if someone else is sitting outside.

Soon though, my naturally questing characteristics take over and I'm straining to catch any snippets of conversation which might float over the fence while trying to look interested in the mower. Maybe the house has been sold by Frankel's children and I wonder if these are my new neighbours?

I begin to mow, annihilating plenty of dandelions and the springy bright flower heads spew up into the air in a satisfyingly shredded and destructive manner.  I start to move the trampoline which is a cumbersome dead weight to haul but I have a well-developed manoeuvre for that and in a few short twists, drags and tugs it is repositioned into one of its two spaces so that I can now mow the upper part of the garden. Then I see a man looking at me. I give him a friendly neighbourly smile.

'I won't be long! I'm just giving it a quick trim and then I'll leave you in peace!'

It's a youngish man with a flat empty smirk. Humour is written all over his face but I don't find him funny. I heave the trampoline the last few inches into the deeply embedded grooves on the ground.

'You're strong'

'Yes. I am'

'You must be stronger than you look'

'Oh yes. I'm much stronger than I look'

And you, my friend, look like an oaf.

I mentally swallow back my sullen disappointment and try not to make any sweeping assumptions.

I look down at the remaining dandelions and remember Frankel's raw garlicky breath and 'stick' exercises. I decide to leave a few clumps of them where they are around the edges. They stand out in bunched gatherings like gossipy girls in cheap loud dresses. They stretch out their long necks, eager to be noticed. I'm trying to see the beauty in them. Like Frankel would have.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Grub

My brother Jeremy phones me.

'Erm....I just want to say how sorry I am to hear about Midge'

'Thanks Jeremy'

'...and have you thought about getting another pet?'

'No. Last thing on my mind at the moment'

I'm surprised at how many people have asked me this question. I'm surprised as well at how deeply it shocks me. How can I even think of replacing Midge? Surely it's much too soon? I feel alone and in a thick foggy cloud of mourning, like I am wandering around in heavy 'widow's weeds' but nobody else can see them. Jeremy is particularly insensitive to my feelings.

'Well its just...you know...how about a cat next time round?'

It takes me a couple of seconds to realize that he is trying to fob me off with Grub. Grub is Jeremy's needy little cat, a clingy feline version of an energy-draining friend you can never get rid of. Grub, who abides in a lean-to opposite the front door of Jeremy's cottage and who has been banned from the place because she kept peeing on the bathroom floor.

Jeremy in full salesman swing, continues his pitch before I have a chance to cut in.

'A cat is far easier to have than a dog, they almost look after themselves, in fact you'd hardly know you have one. I could put a cat flap in for you, and she could live mostly in the garage'

Since she acquired the trick of peeing indoors Grub has become the cat that no-one wants. Originally she was my sister's cat who was then passed on to my brother and for years she lived happily within his home, intense and love-demanding but fairly bearable. If you stayed the night, you would sometimes wake up, with a fright, to find her sitting on your chest sphinx-like, purring loudly and staring at you like a deranged ex-girlfriend.

But somewhere along the line she started to follow Jeremy into the bathroom and watched him aiming at the lavatory bowl. She soon became convinced, and then obsessed, that this was the thing to do. Clever cat. But not quite clever enough and even hygiene-relaxed Jeremy soon tired of mopping up the urine splashed floor. Grub was unwilling to give up this trick though and eventually found herself locked out of the cottage.

I find her situation heart-breaking and I make a point of giving her lots of attention whenever I am there.

And now every time I visit Jeremy, Grub will appear from under some sheets of tarpaulin and race towards me like a hungry lover. She thuds into the side of my leg, elongates her frame and leans in as heavily as she can. She is small and desperate. She hero-worships Jeremy but clearly anyone would do, anyone who shows her any tenderness could easily be transferred in her affections. It's unlikely that she will ever stop her internal ablutions though and who would ever take on a cat with those sorts of ingrained habits?

But I have quite strong feelings over pets who aren't wanted, particularly ones that appear to be suffering. I think Jeremy should have her put down and I have told him this many times. I think she is lonely, once an indoor cat and now banished to the outside, she looks miserable and depressed whenever I see her. She hangs around the outside of doors and windows yowling into the night. She is Cathy, wanting to come in and haunt Heathcliff (or Jeremy) with her love.  Jeremy disagrees with me, has always said that animals are not like humans and that she enjoys life well enough and all that matters to her, as a cat, is that she is fed.

I tell Jeremy that I'm not interested in having her but over the next few days I start to think about Grub and how easy it would be to move her into our life. I am in the garage clearing a space for the delivery of some of  my partner's things that are being sent over from America.

Over the next few weeks I will unpack and find space for them inside, re-home suits and jackets and somehow find space in cramped wardrobes, integrate socks and t-shirts and jeans into drawers, move stuff around, probably throw out a great deal to make room.  And where on earth am I going to put my boyfriends guitars? How precious are guitars to guitarists? Do they need to be locked into a cupboard like shotguns, should they stand sentry in the corner of a room or can they be slid, amicably, under a bed?  Suddenly there are so many other things to think about and it's hard enough dovetailing another person into ones life, let alone a deprived, lovelorn and cloakroom-obsessed cat.

But I ponder still over the cat flap and where it could go. I start to imagine a sunny summers day a few months down the line and I'm sitting in the garden chatting with my boyfriend, my son is bouncing happily on his trampoline, Grub is sleepily lounging in the warmth, under the shade of the plum tree.

Or peeing on the bathroom floor. Or inside a guitar under the bed.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Midge


The dog had been putting on weight for about a month and I foolishly imagined, because her appetite was unchanged, that she was fine. But she didn't really look fine, she had developed a strange way of standing with her front legs at an odd angle. Her stomach had begun to bloat and bulge, her chest to swell and her back-bone felt sharp to the touch where before it had been smooth and padded. And, usually an avid outdoor dog, it was actually weeks since she'd wanted to go for a walk.

I even went online and found her symptoms and a common cause of death amongst her breed, but as she still kept looking up at me and wagging her tail with continued vigor I sort of ignored everything else.

I just didn't want to see the truth. In the end my son kept badgering me to take her to the vet.

'There is something seriously wrong with her Mum. You've got to take her to the vet. Look at her stomach, its hanging down all puffy and spongy!'

Midge has been by my sons side for more than three-quarters of his life. He has raced through fields, played endless games and either accidentally or deliberately spilled countless plates of food near her which she has always gratefully hoovered up. And while I take the cowards route and keep finding other things that are more pressing to deal with he comes straight out and forces me to take control.

'SHERIDAN!' he snaps.

When my son feels I am not giving him my full attention he will use my first name to startling effect. I feel the gravity in his voice immediately. I stop what I am doing and go and carefully rub the dogs tummy again. It's still that strange bloated heaviness. But she doesn't appear to be in any pain, just grateful, like dogs are, for the attention.

I take Midge to the vet the next morning, just after my son leaves for a 10 day trip to Spain with his school. As we sit in the surgery and wait our turn I think about his last words.

'Don't worry Mum. She'll probably be fine. When I get back we'll all go for a walk, like we used to, up to the common at Nymphsfield. She'll love that, racing around with lots of sniffing and meeting other dogs. Just think of all those walks we've got to look forward to now that Spring is here'

I perch without pleasure on a seat in the reception area. Its still early and it looks like we are the only customers. Midge stands alone, her body swollen dramatically, her legs all spindly under the weight. She looks bleakly around her waiting for the next installment. And then she turns and looks up at me. I wonder how I'm going to tell my son. She starts to wag her tail. I hope she can't read my mind.

An elderly man has appeared and starts to make his way across the room. He moves slowly with a large old Labrador on a lead. It's a black Lab, speckled with grey, and like its owner it is focusing single-mindedly on getting one foot, or paw, in front of the other. Midge suddenly perks up, hurriedly throws me a reassuring glance and totters into the dogs pathway where she starts to wag her tail and bat her beautiful eyes. The dog stops to acknowledge her and for a moment they sniff around with tender care, she small and fidgety, he steady and serious. Then the vet calls us in.

And I plead with time to stretch the short stroll to the consulting room into the longest walk on earth.

Within five minutes of the door shutting behind us the diagnosis is made. She has severe congestive heart disease. It has gained a speedy foot-hold and is in the final stages. I am told that it would be kinder to end it now while her tail is still wagging and she is still able to enjoy her food. I know that already. She looks up at me adoringly and in an effort to remain unemotional I bite my inner cheek until it throbs.

While the vet prepares the lethal dose I feed her dog treats from a large glass jar. They are far too big, more suitable for an Alsatian than a King Charles but she gamely attacks them with what few teeth she has left. It has now become like an animal version of an episode from 'Casualty' and I feel myself caught up in a storyline that I already know the ending of and which I can't escape from.

A veterinary nurse has joined us and we three stand around the table, each in our allotted position, the seconds ticking by unchallenged as a dreadful scene is played out. The vet says Midge may struggle but that it will be over quickly. I feel guilty and hollow.

The vet quietly and calmly talks through the procedure . I cup Midge's dear little face in my hands and begin to stroke her brow with one of my thumbs. She allows her head to drop back into my palm, always so trusting, her gaze focuses on mine and I manage to tell her what a wonderful dog she has been and how very much we have loved her. My mind spins back to when she won 2 rosettes at our local dog show.

She was judged as having 'the most beautiful eyes' and the 'waggiest tail'. She looks deeply into mine and lifts her tail up and then down, just once. It is quick but she doesn't struggle.

The most beautiful eyes and the waggiest tail.

And then she is gone.