The Lady and the Dog

Argus title : In mourning for two loving souls

Things are very different now when I go downstairs in the morning. I used to chat away to our dog Mickey as I made tea or toast. In truth, more often than not, I’d sing to him. I’d warble away and he’d wait patiently for me to get on with it and feed him.

Now he’s not there so I don’t sing. I miss him. Mickey developed a brain tumour and died not long before Christmas. He’d lived with us for 9 years.

Mickey was a pretty dog, with a shiny black coat, remarkably sweet floppy ears and a limping back leg which had probably been kicked. He was a rescue dog. The vets’ best guess was that he was 3 years old.

It’s strange how much I miss him. I’d wanted a wire haired terrier or a brown short haired dog. I distinctly remember telling my husband and daughter as we drove to the RSPCA “I don’t want a black one or one with long hair that moults all over the place”. Almost inevitably the dog they fell in love with was a long haired black dog which shed more hair than any animal I have ever known. Nonetheless, I grew to love him.

He was a remarkably fastidious dog, at least when he was indoors. He wouldn’t take food from anyone’s hand or from the floor and didn’t slobber over us while we were eating. In fact, he didn’t even eat his own food greedily.

When he took walks with us he’d entrance passers-by by his appealing looks and the greeting he’d give them, leaping up to lick their hands and faces.

Mickey had excellent hearing and therefore loathed the powerful fireworks which have become an unwelcome part of life in the area in which we live. He never became used to it. I’ve known many animals who disliked bangs, but none who have been quite so distressed by them.

During the worst of the fireworks we kept him in, but he’d bark and run desperately from room to room and up and down stairs. His eyes would roll with fear and his hair would stand on end. Once he appeared to lose consciousness, in a fit which presaged the illness which would kill him. There’ve been times when I’ve cursed the people who so carelessly tormented him.

We found that sedatives could not calm him, so every year, as Bonfire night approached we’d send him away to my parents in law. My father in law would take him for long walks and my mother in law would cosset him. She was in poor health, so he’d sit by her chair and follow her as she moved slowly around the house.

Granny Joan , as we called her, also had a difficult start in life. Her parents died when she was very small and she and her siblings were split up and sent to live with different relations. She didn’t speak much about those times.

When I first met her, she and her clergyman husband were living in a huge rectory in Peterborough. I hadn’t known her son for very long and so was fearful she’d disapprove. However, she soon put me at my ease, regaling me with stories about her life as a clergy wife in South Africa.

She’d known Brighton from her youth. During the war, she joined the Wrens, and trained in Brighton,. Like so many women, she acquired skills which in peacetime were confined to men. She became a specialist electrical fitter on Navy vessels and for some time wired detonators in torpedoes.

Joan was a friendly woman, who in her youth loved dancing.. Her upbringing had been quite restrictive and so she enjoyed the opportunities for social interaction which the war created. She recalled many happy evenings dancing in Brighton’s Regency Ballroom.

Joan was very pretty, and as I noticed from family albums, had fabulous legs. It irritated her that male colleagues assumed Wrens would mend their clothes. “Hey Blondie” they’d call out “if I do that bit of wiring will you sew my buttons on?”. She said she did the wiring better than they could.

She described the sexual harassment Wrens experienced, usually without redress. O non-commissioned officer regularly tormented her. She described how on one occasion he pushed her too far. Laughing she said “I grabbed a wrench and hit him over the head with it and knocked him silly. He never did it again!”.

It always amused me to think that this very dutiful clergy wife, who spent years organising parish events and running parish groups, had whacked her senior officer and got away with it.

After the war, Joan trained as a nurse at St Thomas Hospital in London. Her brother was training for the priesthood and through him she met Tom, her future husband. She married him in 1952 and later travelled with him to South Africa.

Joan brought up four children in the distorted conditions of Apartheid South Africa. She served as a dedicated clergy wife, and later worked as an information officer with people experiencing alcohol and drug addiction.

Joan was not a political woman, but always opposed Apartheid. She tried to keep life on an even keel, but that was never really an option.

Tom’s brother Colin, once a priest in Eastbourne, but by then Bishop of Namibia, was exiled by the South African government in 1972. A few years later, three of Joan’s children left South Africa for Britain, all of them gravitating to Brighton. In 1983 Joan and Tom followed them, moving first to Peterborough and then to Shoreham, where they retired.

It was typical of Joan that when she moved to Shoreham she became a Red Cross volunteer at Southlands Hospital. It was work she loved. She missed the hurly burly of South African parish life, but she never complained, seeming content to be “Granny Joan” to her granddaughters.

Used to living on a small income, she revelled in charity shops and Shoreham’s Wednesday market. She and the stall holders between them managed to equip our daughter with probably the most comprehensive supply of cuddly toys, Sylvanian families, my little ponies and Angelina ballerinas in the South East.
As time went on Joan’s health deteriorated. The voluntary work came to an end and so, eventually, did the trips to the market. She developed a debilitating illness which caused her to shake, at times uncontrollably. The once-sure hands which had wired complex electrical circuits shook so badly that she would spill her food and drink. She underwent surgery for cancer, suffered a series of strokes and developed diabetes, which eventually prevented her from reading. She bore it bravely.
She became acutely ill in October and so for the first time in many years, Mickey didn’t spend Bonfire Night in Shoreham. Looking back on it, we realised that it was at about the same time that Mickey started to display symptoms of his fatal illness. His behaviour began to change. He became depressed and nervous and even seemed scared.
Instead of sitting at our feet, he’d stand and gaze at us. At first we thought he wanted something, then we realised that he was probably experiencing small seizures. Eventually, he started to shake like Joan.
I was with Mickey almost constantly during the last two weeks of his life. He had two massive fits and we thought we’d lost him, but he rallied for a while, just as Joan rallied from the final stroke. She struggled home and so did he. Both were disabled and on medication.
Mickey seemed more comfortable on medication. His fear had gone, but so had his joy in life. He’d forgotten everything he enjoyed. He walked repetitively back and forth and couldn’t remember what to do with a ball. Even fireworks didn’t affect him.
A fall precipitated Joan’s final admission. She held on until all her children were around her and then let go. At the same time Mickey, who’d appeared to be responding to medication, just seemed to give up. They died within twelve hours of each other.
When I was a child I had a mental picture of the pearly gates. They were a bit like the wrought iron gates to my school, but much bigger and surrounded by cloud.

In the days after Joan’s death I’d find myself smiling as, quite unbidden, an image would come to me of Joan and the dog approaching the gates.

I imagined both of them, Joan walking freely and purposefully with Mickey scampering about her feet, neither of them shaking or stumbling or needing assistance – a beautiful woman going home with her dog at her side.

2 responses to “The Lady and the Dog

  1. Pingback: Lockdown in numbers (11): the number 14 – Covid and animals – Andy Winter's Blog

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