I remember her arrival vividly. Ticking the weeks off on my fingers, it’s possible to work out the date accurately: the first week in May. Penny had died in March and the reordering of patterns of existance and chattels, the dog needed a new home.
Could we look after her? Take her for proper walks? Bill pared his questions to the minimum and then drove over in his old Audi hatchback and left the tailgate splayed open while we drank tea round the kitchen table. Her companion, an arthritic yellow labrador, had been rehoused a few miles up the road.
It was an inauspicious beginning; she refused to leave the back of his car. Clearly, the dog did not want to be with us at all. Utterly bereaved, she curled in the corner of her bed and pretended to be somewhere else. We respected her misery and left her pretty much alone.
Penny had been a neighbour and we made friends after she had beaten a first round of breast cancer so I can’t tell you what she was like before ill-health struck. In its wake, she was upbeat for her future; full of plans and laughter. Gentle and beautiful, a true lady in the old-fashioned sense. A positive force, she made things happen. Amongst them, dog-breeding.
The cancer came back and robbed everyone all round – Penny of her projects and all the rest of us of her. Back in March it had been unseasonably warm and I remember the noise of the bird song as we walked up the lane from the church (not big enough for all) to the cups of tea and sandwiches in her garden. Full, full of memories and in my case of puppies too.
Persuaded by Penny’s laughter and the warmth emanating from her and her freshly painted, warm farmhouse kitchen; we had taken a puppy from her litter, part of ‘that project’. I had heard Penny describe her research of pedigree, the trip to the breeder in the Fens, the house full of live border terriers and images of border terriers on mugs, towels and fridge magnets.
When the pups were born, we were summoned by text to see the sheepskin lined box in the warmest corner, feeding mother stretched in a crescent round her litter of 7. I took one look at the mother, Crumpet, and found myself offering to buy one. I suspect we had already been targeted by both dog and owner.
And so from then to Bill leaving her with us. I had never seen depression in an animal before. She was listless, far away in mind and shrank from us. On a walk she would turn round and run back to the house. But bit by bit and slowly at first, interest in the surroundings took hold. The day she jumped onto my lap we knew Penny’s dog was back., upbeat and optimistic, an essay on enjoying life.
Crumpet and Buna: what a pair of bitches. They sport hard-wearing coats, almost tweedy and worn tightly over a stocky sensible build. No sissyness here, these Borders are not beauties, their aura is sensible matron. In the house, they tussle with canines neatly kept out of the way, pile up on each other in the dog bed or curl as tight and round as chestnuts, in front of a roaring log fire.
They are busy for hours on garden patrol. Trenches are dug, earthworks thrown up in the flowerbed. The giant pampas grass has been traced underground with a series of elaborate tunnels. The scale of their digging is impressive, barely deters a rabbit though, keen as mustard but seldom catch a thing.
On a walk they are one dog in two bodies. Running like the wind and hunting rabbits and each other in and out of the deep ditches and their banks. Weaving tracks together, russet matching in neatly with wizened grass stems, they complement the dark spinach greens and burnished grey of mud down on the marshes. The emptiness salutes their panting energy.
Nothing else moves from here to the horizon apart from scudding clouds and the marsh and sea birds. Our house stands in an empty quarter of open fields running down to a river estuary. Agrarian prairie fluctuates between fields of rape, corn and autumn stubble. Less valuable land is meadow grass for suckling herds, crossed by dykes that are rich with bird-life and gives way to the estuary mud and the tidal river.
The pleasure of eyeing the dogs in the landscape is acute. It is not wise to exult in an acquisition, an accomplishment or a connection. We’d had this discussion a few days before. Enjoy the moment of perfection, but do not carry it away as a trophy. To treat these rare passages as a piece of taxidermy and to put them in a stark glass box is to invite cold conceit in. An ironic exchange in the light of what then happened on this crystal clear December afternoon.
The light thrown out by the sun was so sharp that it etched, edged and made the usual view sensational. It turned the sky upside down and marked out blueness and puffy pink clouds in the long parallel strip of the dyke behind the sea -wall. The tide, far-out had a large dollop of Suffolk sky in the shining mud. I had gone beyond one dog in two skins and a human. I had jumped off, become the landscape: the light wind on my cheek, the mournful call of the curlew, the wet crimping of the mud. The sense of seamlesness settled at my shoulders: of being nothing and everything and of of pure pleasure in the elements.
Dropping off the sea-wall, I stooped under a stretch of limp barbed-wire into the field of giant parasols. They had been there the previous month, marching about in the soft cow pats and we had gone out early to forage for mushrooms in the tentative light at dawn. The cattle had got there first and stamped and scattered them wide, plates severed from stems.
Beyond this there is a field of small wisps of newly emerged winter wheat. South-facing, warm and curvaceous as a giant buttock and with an inviting grass track tracing a way up to higher ground made gloomy with massed conifers. Up the grass track, ahead of the dogs, the earth to left and right ploughed in neat corduroy furrows. I was at one with the breeze, the kind temperature and the shiney light bouncing off mud and conifers. The silence was broken by the over-excited shriek of Crumpet who shot past me trailing a hare. It made three times her speed.
Catching up with the dogs the sense of sharing a skin with the land was wrenched away. Beyond and above us, I could see the hoppers for feeding the pheasants and up to the right the gamekeeper’s land-rover and a half glimpse of its curmudgeonly owner. He was emptying white plastic sacks of grain into the feed bins.
I see him and the shock of the cold dive into an unheated pool slaps through my body. The reaction is strange because I hardly know this man. We’ve passed in cars almost daily on the long straight drive down to the main road. He doesn’t acknowledge the cordial passing wave back but eyes bulge forwards as he grips his steering wheel. His vehicle is unnerving – a light layer of green mould has settled from wheel hubs to windscreen and the dirty tarpaulin stretched over the back sports an ugly slash. It looks menacing and he is. In four years we have had only one exchange of words – he had returned a straying dog with a clear threat.
Long term, I have picked up on his hostility and it’s really strange how it can be projected without a face to face encounter. Irrational and groundless on his part, I pick up on it like an animal sniffing the wind and intuit that some rule in his power book has been broken. The book is unwritten and he doesn’t have the way with words to explain it. He is a man who puts magpies in traps and shoots cats. His default facial position, a scowl, he harbours grudges.
And so I stopped stark frozen on the brow of the horizon in the reddest and softest of hats. Instinct made me hunch my shoulders, squeeze eyes tight shut. A rifle made a noise like heavy canvas tearing , an animal screamed in quick sequence and in my line of sight a dog sat down and a red bruise spread quickly through her haunches. I saw it wash across her body like a fast sunset.
The untrained eye couldn’t tell them apart. Mother and daughter after all and nor this time could I. The gamekeeper had a face of broken veins framed by unfashionable side whiskers. We walked in and met over the dog, eyes locked and intense: I thought she was a fox and so I have shot her – do you want me to finish her off?
It was Crumpet, not yet dead but lolling with her tongue hanging out. In a strange duality of the mind I’d already seen this happen and knew it as inevitable, yet suspended over the blood and crumpling body I cleaved to the thinnest hope that a trip to the vet would patch her up. Scooped up and in my arms she was limp and warm against my arms and long blue coat. Soft and red like the hat, one with me as I hugged her and carried her home.
Parked up back at the house and at a respectful distance, the game keeper was waiting for me. Shoulders hunched, by now ashamed of his anger, penitent, eager to offer help and commiserations. Penny’s dog had come alive, had delighted us with a fierce reciprocal love. Dead by now, I laid her down in the porch and covered her with a white silk scarf from the Dalai Lama.
A closed sky brought torrential rain the next morning as we dug into the sandy soil, water ran down collars, smeared spectacles, drenched us through. The body was a stiff board that dropped a pint of blood when we picked her up. We returned her to the earth that she loved to dig in. Covering her grave over, faces smeared with rain anshaking it from out of our collars. I knew it then – that rifle shot – the man had fired in anger, jealous of our affinity with the landscape. We would bury this dog and get right back out there, recover the exultation, stride across the marshes. And we would become dog breeders – I hear Penny saying go for it. Love of life, that is the mantra.