For six wonderful weeks at a time when my heart and mind needed space and serenity, dear friends allowed me to look after their house and all that came with it…including their two dogs.
The house was near the beach. I was already acquainted, socially, with the dogs and loved the idea of the chance to spend some time within earshot of the soothing, healing sound of the ocean.
I have never owned a dog. My mother didn’t like them and nor did my ex-husband; so my family pets have always been cats. While I never felt deprived by my dog-less life, I was looking forward to the chance to bond with a couple of cute canines.
An overnight run-through before my friends jetted off to Europe, and suddenly I was alone with Ollie and Gus. The cupboard and freezer were stocked with dog food, and the dog beds in the garage were ready. While Ollie and Gus were used to sleeping in the house, they would happily go downstairs to the garage for the night – and they did so on the night before their owners left.
On Day One, we headed to the beach for our afternoon walk. It’s a “dog beach’’, a popular council-sanctioned stretch of coast for exercising the family pooch. Ollie and Gus leapt from the car in a synchronised bound, hurtling down the path to the sand as fast as their stocky little legs could go. It was clearly the highlight of their day. They frolicked in the surf and rolled in the sand, but obeyed my call when it was time to go home. I blessed my absent friends for having such well-trained pets.
My instructions included the caveat that there be no ball games or stick-throwing. Ollie’s exuberance in a beach ball-game had already cost him a broken leg, and his owners $3000 in vet’s bills.
Ollie and Gus are brothers, seriously cute Skye terriers. I basked in the reflected glory of their soft grey-blue coats, their perky ears and smiley expressions. Hands reached out for them all along the beach.
I soon realised that a lot of the conversation was directed at ankle-level. “Hello, what’s your name?’, “Oh, aren’t you lovely!’’ A small girl said: “Oh, look, twins!” By now I was as expert as a mother at telling them apart.
My shadows followed me around the house, sat at my feet while I wrote and barked warnings when a stranger arrived.
After a week or so, bedtime became an issue, “the boys’’ not happy that banishment to the garage was now a regular thing. They became reluctant to move when I began the nightly routine of shutting doors and windows. Prodding and cajoling got them there in the end, Ollie less easily than Gus. But within two nights, they had conspired against me using a kind of canine telepathy that I’d already divined between them on the beach. Reluctance became obduracy. Like stubborn toddlers they planted their haunches firmly on the floor and simply refused to take the stairs, looking at me as if to say: “Just see if you can make us!”
Short of physically carrying them one-by-one, down the two flights of stairs, I didn’t think I could. “OK, you win!” I said, throwing up my hands. They smiled. After the lights were out, I heard the tell-tale click of their toes on the bedroom floor, followed by two long, contented doggy sighs. When I woke, Gus was asleep on the floor at the foot of the bed, Ollie across the doorway. My lovely guard dogs.
Our routine was soon established, with one drawback: it was too much of a routine. A late afternoon beach walk is a great way to wind down and get away from the computer. The boys clearly thought so too…and if I moved, or even glanced their way, at any time after about 4.30pm, a frenzy of barking ensued until I head downstairs. Ollie tugging at my clothes with his teeth, Gussie running to my room to bring me a shoe (never mind that the thongs I wore to the beach every day were outside the front door). The only day this did not happen was one thunderstorming Sunday when it’s clear to us all that a beach walk is out of the question.
Before I knew it, the school holidays hit and with them, hordes of families were heading for the beach. Ollie was in heaven, scarpering off to join in any game, no matter how far down the beach it was! Yelling and chasing him, I bemoaned my inability to whistle and promised him darkly that his days of beach walks may be numbered.
Email advice came from Italy: put him on the leash and he will soon tow the line. Why didn’t I think of that? The advice comes with a knowing postscript: “Looks like they have you right where they want you, under the paw!” I could almost hear my friends laughing all the way from their fireside in Bolsano.
Six weeks passed in a flash. Reality dawned with the travellers’ return and a few days later I was returning to my own home.
Of course, this is not the whole story. Ollie and Gus, it seemed, had played me beautifully; the letter from the neighbours, gently complaining about the barking dogs “never reprimanded”, slipped into the letterbox the day after my friends’ return.
But I headed home with new knowledge. About myself, and about dogs, and about why people love their dogs so much.
There’s a postscript to this story. Ollie’s leg has got progressively troublesome over the past few years. His 14-year-old body has become more wracked with pain, walking too difficult. Last week, I went to visit and he hobbled out of his bed to lick my feet and say hello. I ruffled his ears, patted his greying coat and told him he was a good boy. I didn’t know we were saying goodbye.
Ollie’s gone now. His resting place is in the garden lovingly tended by his heart-broken friends, keeping him close by. They put him there today, then headed to their beloved beach. Gus went with them. We’re all a little bit lonelier now…but Ollie will always have a special place in my heart. I just have to think of him and I smile.