She stood there, a small, stocky dog with short, light-brown fur and squat legs squarely planted on her rug. A leash trailed listlessly beside her. I passed by her as I obeyed the therapist’s direction to walk briskly around the edge of the gymnasium floor, with my fellow participants in the heart rehabilitation program.
Her eyes bored into me before I actually saw her; Large, doleful, brown eyes, fixed expectantly on the walkers and their shuffling responses to the therapist’s directive to walk briskly.
Not an especially beautiful animal, yet without moving a muscle, she inveigled her way into your awareness with an unwavering, pleading stare. Undaunted by the disorganized pedestrian shambles, the dog gazed wistfully at us, patiently alert to the semblance of a nod, a sound rising on a positive inflection, any human sign which could be interpreted as an invitation to trot along with us around the edge of the gymnasium floor.
But bound by canine obedience, she remained rigid on the rug, only her eyes giving any hint of movement. Although one day during exercise class, her owner suddenly broke off in the middle of neck stretches, and reiterating sternly, ‘No, no,’ left the class and marched over to where the dog waited. Or rather, to where she should have been waiting.
But the rug was vacant. The dog had moved sideways to squat in front of two elderly women. Their sympathetic noises, and invitations to patting and stroking and other doggie indulgences, had proven irresistible. Succumbing to this attention and affection, the dog had recklessly abandoned her rug, to grovel in canine subservience at the feet of the indulgers. Inevitably there were consequences for this breach of obedience, and with stern reminders of her canine status, her owner asserted his authority and herded her back to her rug, where she resumed her mournful vigil.
As she rivets me to her gaze, mounting her silent plea, my mind swirls with memories of another dog, whose photo sits on my bookshelf, a ginger haired mixture of beagle and labrador. Of average size and well proportioned, she was bigger than the dog at the hospital. White fur patched her face, and flecked her coat. Her doggie eyes gaze out at me from the photo, feigning a look of innocent naivety, which masks an innate, canine cunning. Her name was Kelly.
Years ago, Kelly inhabited our household. Mind you, she was meant to inhabit it externally, but with passive canine persistence, she crept vigilantly around identified obstacles until voilà, she finally succeeded in beguiling her way through the back door to the laundry. Tail wagging incessantly, she feigned an air of deceptive innocence, to distract from this boundary breach. Once in the laundry it was only an elongated slink to human company and the comforts of kitchen and lounge room.
There were, inevitably, some lapses of judgment, such as the ill-advised attack on the baked chicken I had rested momentarily on the open oven door, right beside the laundry. A quick canine calculation balanced the disadvantages of resisting temptation against the consequent explosive, but short-lived, tirade of anger and outrage. Indeed, that dog established a case for virtuous innocence, portraying herself as the confused victim, powerlessly wafted through the open door on the aroma of the chicken.
But that brazen, illicit sampling of roast chicken was a severe setback on the course of domestic integration, and strategically, she literally went to ground, practising every fawning gesture of subservience as she sought to ingratiate herself back into the forbidden domestic boundaries. During long doggie days she would watch and wait, plot and plan, alert to the smallest gap through which she could slither and begin to pad her stealthy path back through the laundry door.
As usual, she would frequently sabotage her best efforts with minor, petulant canine outbursts when she felt excluded and starved of attention. Unfortunately, digging up the newly planted garden as payback for being left home alone was the wrong sort of attention, and she knew it. But so pathological was this canine need to be noticed, she would herself alert us to the wrongdoing, responding to our cheerful calls with head hung down and tail between her legs, sure indicators of a guilty doggie conscience. Any kind of attention it seemed, was worth the consequences.
There was the time when she took advantage of my trustful inattention. Walking into the lounge room to collect something, I caught a furtive movement from the corner of my eye, and turned my head to investigate. There, slinking down from the sofa to the floor, like one of those slinky toys that oozes its way down steps, was Kelly, in a contorted simulation of slink and grovel. Had she not moved I would never have known she was there. But some vestige of canine obedience pricked her into a guilty retreat, exposing her to an outraged reprimand. To be in the lounge room was one thing. But to be lying on the sofa! This wilful flaunting of boundaries flabbergasted me.
But for Kelly it was only a minor distraction. Perseverance and patience, those dogged qualities, which over centuries had defined the relationship between her species and ours, had imbued her with an indefatigable ability to triumph over any adversity presented by humans.
Predictably, she was eventually ensconced in the house, fixing us with that same steady, mournful gaze calculated to make you feel guilty, like the dog at the hospital. A brief snack, the indulgence of a meat pie, would see her planted squarely in front of your feet, doleful eyes scrutinizing every mouthful taken. No matter that she may have just been fed, or rewarded with some titbits. Nothing deterred her from this guilt laying-on ritual. You felt like a glutton stuffing yourself in the presence of a starving waif.
That dog! Always contriving to present as an innocent, dumb animal, while maintaining a vigilant alert to any disruption to her comfort! We would only have to mouth the word ‘bath’, and she would disappear, way under the house, where we couldn’t reach her. Her bathtub, the wheelbarrow, was anathema to her, regarded with heightened suspicion even when used for its legitimate purpose. Human wiliness had to be pitted against canine resistance to cajole her out from her hiding place to endure the indignity of a bath.
Beagles are fetchers, invaluable to hunters, and in the absence of birds and small animals, Kelly had evolved into an obsessive fetcher of balls and sticks. Strategically placed on each back step was a stick, mute symbols of canine optimism that one of them might be thrown out into the yard so she could indulge her passion.
New neighbours, beguiled by this benign, tail wagging creature whose friendly overtures were always accompanied by a stick, would enthusiastically hurl the stick, only to find it back at their feet faster than a returning boomerang. Enthusiasm would soon subside into exasperation as the exhausted stick-throwing victims tried stoically to ignore this pesky animal.
But the obsession with balls was a boon to the neighbourhood cricket team. Kelly was always on the team, a fast, reliable fielder. All the kids in the street loved Kelly. She never tired of fetching the ball, which enthusiastic batsmen belted up and down the street, over fences and down gutters. She could even catch it on the full. And she played to the rules of the game, always surrendering the ball, drooling with saliva, immediately she had retrieved it. No one seemed to worry about doggie germs back then, as the ball was immediately scooped up in an attempt to run the batsman out.
She was an energetic dog who exuded robust health, but there was no escaping the onset of old age. An intermittent limp was the first symptom attributable, the vet claimed, to degenerative rheumatism. He had a simple remedy. She was he said, to rest, and stop running after sticks and balls. But this dog was the Peta Pan of canines. Not for her a quiet, dignified old age. She relished youthful exuberance, revelled in the attention and affection that rewarded her feats with sticks and balls and jigged around expectantly, waiting for the game to begin. The pain from a gammy leg could not compete with the thrill of the chase.
And then, one day, quite suddenly, in mid-ball catch, she staggered and collapsed. She had sustained a stroke. The vet was cautious in his prognosis. She might survive he said, but if she did, would be unable to get about, and remain dependent on intensive medical treatment. So it was to be vale to Kelly. Tears still come to my eyes as I cast myself back to that day when I had to make the decision to determine Kelly’s fate. I have never heard, before or since, such anguished cries as those of my son, although as the youngest of six he had already set an unrivalled precedent for volume. It was his birthday, but Kelly’s demise rendered celebration impossible. He would always, he loudly sobbed, connect his birthday with her death.
Kelly had been his companion since he was a toddler. Like him, she was an unplanned addition to our family. A phone call had come from an erstwhile brother. One could never judge the accuracy of the information in such phone calls, but as we had just lost a dog, we decided to risk the veracity of this call. Friends of his he said, were expecting their first baby. They wanted to give away their dog because they felt she wouldn’t adjust to competing for attention with the new arrival. The dog had undergone, my brother assured us, obedience and other training, although given many of Kelly’s later lapses it is doubtful that she ever graduated. So telling the children we were collecting a surprise for them, we crossed Sydney and took ownership of the dog.
When they saw her they were ecstatic. This was a surprise beyond their expectations as our house extensions were still not finished. To our youngest child the dog became an inseparable companion, a reliable source of unquestioning affection. Kelly for her part, revelled in her new surroundings and seemed to have no qualms in relinquishing her old home and settling in with us. If the children were all out she went in search of them, taking advantage of the unfinished back fence to make her escape. She would go no further than the local school where the attention she craved was lavished on her. Kelly quickly became a neighbourhood identity, and the school would either notify us, or children would make a detour to ensure that she arrived home safely.
For a number of reasons we never replaced Kelly. For me, she could never be replaced. But as the dog at the hospital fixes us with its gaze, I am overcome with nostalgia for that time in my life when a dog’s tricks, a dog’s antics, a dog’s personality, a dog’s needs, were a part of my everyday existence.
As its owner berates the dog at the hospital for daring to move from its rug, I am reminded of the chicken, the sofa, the dug-up gardens, the dogged canine persistence in inveigling its way into our hearth and our hearts.
But for now I can only look at the photograph on my bookshelf and treasure my memories of the Kelly era.