The Death of Crumpet

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.

27 Comments

  1. Chris says:

    Very well written

  2. MarkD says:

    Awful, sorry, and beautifully written

  3. moving…beautiful…beyond words

  4. Donna says:

    Oh my goodness. What a sad story. I am beyond words. You wrote such a compelling accounting, I am literally shaking.

  5. TS says:

    From one writer to another, your essay was exquisite. I have five dogs and volunteer at a no-kill shelter. I have seen both the incredible kindness and heart-stopping cruelty humans have lavished on animals. Thank you for your post and for loving Crumpet.

  6. Missy says:

    I’m wiping tears as I type. I am so sorry. But I know your life was richer for having known Crumpet and there are many happy memories to overcome this horrid one.

  7. Donna says:

    I am so very sorry to read this post. You have my deepest sympathy.

  8. Rabia says:

    So much to say…i m so sorry for the loss…wonderfully written.

  9. PatioPatch says:

    Dear Catharine – your magnificent narrative makes the story of Crumpet’s death so much more awful. The beauty of the landscape in which she ran and roamed with you suddenly turning into a senseless scene of assasination. Very sad and shocked to read this. I had lain in bed this morning, turning over images of the walk I had with you and remembering the scampering, scurrying Crumpet.
    You have been in my thoughts much of late – hence my message. I am so very sorry.

    Laura x

  10. Good grief. I came to answer your question. Now I feel stunned. How hard and cruel life can be. I’m so sorry.

    OK, you asked about leaving a link to your blog from a comment. That is easy, it is the second reason, lurking in the background, why we leave comments. You just right click on the words ‘Catharine Howard’ or whoever on the comment. And here I find myself on your blog!

  11. omg Catherine when I said I lookforward to your next post I never dreamt it could be so sad, I am so sorry to read about Crumpet, beautifully written, take care Frances

  12. Lucy Pavia says:

    Beautifully written and very sad

  13. Edith Hope says:

    Dear Catherine, My thoughts are with you. Such sadness, such a sense of loss. The present will seem bleak and empty, but forge ahead with your plans for the future. Then Crumpet will live on.

  14. Tatyana says:

    Dear Catharine, I am so, so sorry! What a beautiful dog, what a cruel human… But, I want to add -Crumpet had a great life! Loved and the most important – free. Free to run, to dig, free to be a dog. I feel sorry for my dog who should be on a leash almost all the time.
    Hugs,
    Tatyana

  15. Karen says:

    My deepest sympathy on your loss of dear Crumpet.

  16. Helen says:

    Oh dear I have tears running down my face. You write so beautifully and so evocatively. I am so sorry that you have lost Crumpet and in such an awful and brutal way. As others have said at least Crumpet had that bit more time to enjoy after Penny’s death instead of ending up in a dog rescue centre as so many in her circumstances do.

  17. Greenearth says:

    That is so sad.

    What a careless use of a gun.

  18. debsgarden says:

    Your story is terribly but beautifully written. For Crumpet’s life to be suddenly ended on such a perfect day, by such a cruel and senseless act, is horrifying. I am so sorry. I wonder what has happened in this man’s life that causes him to take pleasure in killing.

  19. So very sad for your loss, Catherine.May you find peace and comfort in your sweet memories.

  20. Soren says:

    That entry is a grand memorial. To a dog and a person.

    You made me cry.

  21. Jim Groble says:

    I am so sorry for your loss. jim

  22. Mac says:

    I’m crying. No adequate words.

  23. James A-S says:

    Oh Catherine.
    What a foul day but what a finish.
    Love of life.
    x

  24. Autumn Belle says:

    Catherine, I am so sorry to know about Crumpet’s passing who has lost his life for being let free to roam the land we humans share with all living beings on Mother Earth. A life is lost due to a human assumption? Words are inadequate to offer any consolation but this:

    Prayer of gentleness to all creatures
    To all the humble beasts there be,
    To all the birds on land and sea,
    Great Spirit, sweet protection give
    That free and happy they may live!
    And to our hearts the rapture bring
    Of love for every living thing;
    Make us all one kin, and bless
    Our ways with Nature’s gentleness!
    ….. John Galsworthy (1867-1933), Nobel Prize winner (Literature) 1932

    Lastly, I would like to wish you a blessed Christmas and New Year 2011!

  25. Autumn Belle says:

    I’m so sorry to read this.

  26. Gesine says:

    This is so sad…
    Even my English is not perfect I think you are a great writer, my dear!
    Wish you all the best!

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