I have frequently heard it said that some parents flounder when their children leave home and redirect their affection to dogs. Such was the case three years ago when, feeling nostalgic for the days of having children, we focused our attention on planning a saga holiday for our ageing hounds.
Fourteen-year-old Puppy, a Husky mix, hadn’t exactly grown into her name. We had found her abandoned at a Madrid mega-mall aged about three months and, without any plan to keep her, took to calling her “the puppy”. I met another elderly dog in Crete that had the same anomalous name for the same commonplace reason, which goes to show the better side of human nature in encounters with homeless baby animals. Seventeen-year-old Rufus was named after the titular character in one of our children’s favourite books, Tomi Ungerer’s Rufus the Bat, due to her flying fox-like snout and pointy ears, although she was female, which people who asked both her name and gender often found confusing. She always seemed somewhat confused about her gender too. When we adopted her from the local shelter, allegedly aged three, she caught our eye because of the way she kept lifting her leg, despite being female. Her black fur was now peppered with grey, but she was as vigorous as ever: small, barrel-chested, wasp-waisted and designed for longevity...“She’ll outlive the lot of us!” we all used to jest, inwardly hoping this wouldn’t be the case.
Puppy and Rufus had never been out of central Spain, which wasn’t such a bad thing because we lived in a national park with forests, lakes and rocky mountain ranges. In their dotage, however, I began to feel guilty about the narrow range of their experiences. They had never been to the beach, for example. I used to feel similarly guilty about never having taken my children to any of the Disney parks, not even the nearby one outside Paris, where the French employees in character costumes are known for their unfriendliness to small children. So it was that we resolved to give Rufus and Puppy a bucket list tour of western Europe by driving with them to the north coast of Spain and then along the west coast of France to England. We would do all the usual seaside things: paddling in the surf, eating ice creams, being buried to the neck in cooling, wet sand. Moreover, there would be fine dining: first tapas, then French patisserie and finally fish and chips.
There were going to be challenges, however. Having always lived in the country, Puppy had never learned to walk on a lead and, when one was put on her when she was young, she tended to throw herself to the ground and roll around refusing to walk a step. Rufus, on the other hand, could never be trusted off the lead. When, on occasion, the gate was left ajar by an unsuspecting visitor, Rufus would immediately attempt to run off without so much as a backward glance, seemingly having forgotten she was ever owned. Once, in her younger days, after being missing for days, she had been handed over to a shelter forty miles away across a mountain range. Only a few months before the planned bucket list trip she managed to slip her collar on a walk one morning to disappear for the day, returning exhausted only at dusk. Wanting to enjoy the benefits of a hands-free holiday, we bought a chain gang style double leash, the plan being that heavier, wearier, albeit younger, Puppy would serve as anchor to hare-like Rufus, playing ponderous double bass to her fit as a fiddle. Puppy seemed to be unaware she was on a lead when she was attached to Rufus so there was no return to her early childhood histrionics.
The beach visit did not go as planned. I had been hoping to see some rejuvenated playful bounding but Puppy and Rufus ambled across the shadeless plain of sand visibly bewildered by the unfamiliarity of such terrain. As young dogs, they might have relished the sensation of moist sand beneath their feet but it was, alas, too late. Having arrived, at long last, at the water’s edge they lapped with trepidation, cocked their heads and looked up at us puzzled, lapped again as a small wave rolled in and wet their shrunk shanks, at which they winced and staggered away. My husband ran into the sea, calling to them excitedly in shrill tones to encourage them to take a dip but they found even the shallows, never mind the deeps, quite unfathomable, standing and staring after him. We had brought along Mr. Carrot, the only squeaky toy Puppy had ever shown an interest in. This interest had begun in old age, second childishness preceding mere oblivion perhaps. At home, she’d lope after Mr. Carrot arthritically when he was tossed a metre or so. But at the beach Mr. Carrot’s otherwise tempting squeak was merely ignored. The two of them exhibited only relief when an elderly power walker whose t-shirt informed us he was an ‘Oficero de la Playa’ firmly told us dogs were only allowed from 9 pm to 9 am and we had to depart immediately.
At Santiago de Compostela matters took a turn for the better. Rufus and Puppy, like true pilgrims, walked barefoot up the hill to the cathedral to the resting place of the bones of St James. Sadly, these were ensconced in a jewelled reliquary so there was no hope of being able to chew them. Instead, they sampled a plate of thinly sliced, acorn-fed Iberian ham at a cafe overlooking the basilica. Onward to Bilbao and outside the Guggenheim, Puppy met Jeff Koon's Puppy but didn't recognise it as a dog. There were other unexpected highlights such as when Rufus walked into a Spanish pharmacy and began to dance a canine Flamenco with a russet coloured terrier who took her senescent fancy. She was positively nifty, especially considering that, officially anyhow, she was 102 in small dog years at the time. We enjoyed seeing the staff and other customers’ shocked expressions when they learned how old she was.
Driving along the back roads of northern Spain, we occasionally passed by deserted village squares that once bustled with farmers and livestock on market days, but which could no longer support even a sleepy bar or rough and ready convenience store. When we entered one such hamlet and asked a sun shrivelled couple dressed in dusty black whether there was a restaurant or a shop nearby, they cackled and slapped their sides with mirth. As we drove out of this dying village, our car was chased by a pack of quasi-feral, hybrid Alsatians with mad, rolling eyes and slobbering chops. Our aged hounds were delighted to bark and snarl back at them from inside the car. At times like these, I referred to Rufus as ‘The Hackled Carcass’, due to her age-wasted figure with its barrel stave ribs.
In France, similar zones of rural depopulation showed signs of far greater former wealth. We passed dozens of abandoned or semi-abandoned mini-chateaus such as this one in Armagnac where we spent the night. The count was himself in residence and told us he eked out a living now by renting rooms to holiday people. He also said that there is was surfeit of counts in France with large properties they could not afford to keep up. The once-grand stable blocks on either side of the chateau had become dilapidated. Similarly, the town of Roquefort, birthplace of the famous cheese, was largely empty and run down, albeit still charming with a picturesque river and an ancient church. I was expecting plenty of cashing in on cheese notoriety. You know, little cheese shops with cheesy souvenirs. But no, nothing but blazing sun and the whirr of cicadas among poplar trees.
On the second day of our stop there, already feeling somewhat over-lactosed, I ordered a salad at the only cafe in town that was open. They brought me a cheese board garnished with a few wilting lettuce leaves and limp slices of tomato set among sagging and sweating cheeses. Puppy and Rufus were, therefore, able to sample several varieties of fine French fromage. Camembert won paws down. A genuine French croissant was also tested and clearly deemed superior to the less buttery Spanish imitation. Rufus was well and truly in her element, having always lived for treats and, unlike myself, was in the enviable position of never putting on weight as she advanced in age.
On a forest walk in England, Rufus kept glancing down nervously at the rushing waters beneath as she tip-toed hesitantly but nimbly over the wooden slats of a wire footbridge. We joked that she was ‘Keeping Calm and Carrying On’ in stalwart war time British style. As a younger dog, Puppy would have been petrified at the prospect before her but, her senses dulled and faculties fading, she sauntered across, a meandering haystack, with no awareness of the vigorous river below.
Wollaton Park in Nottingham, which stood in as “Stately Wayne Manor” in the DC Batman movies, proved a great hit with the dog-loving British thanks to their dual leash arrangement and, like stars off duty on set, were the subject of many a snapshot. The idea of journeying to the far north to attend Grandpa’s eightieth birthday party was a bridge too far for poor, tired Puppy who stayed behind in Nottingham with my husband. Rufus, by contrast, sallied north on British Rail with gusto. Dogs aren’t normally allowed in senior care facilities but thanks to my cunning plan of sending off for a leash emblazoned with the words ‘Assistance Dog’, doors otherwise closed were opened for Rufus and me, no questions asked. It was supposed to be a heartfelt reunion as my father had lived in our house in Spain for more than a year and Rufus had taken a great shine to him, jumping onto his lap with a familiarity she had never demonstrated toward anyone else, myself included. Old age had taken its toll on memories though and neither of them could remember the other any longer.
For dogs whose home radius had been more than enough to content them, I saw by the end of our journey that carting them off along the edge of Europe was merely a hardship in their old age and had indeed been more about placating my guilt at not involving them enough in my travels earlier in their lives. Nevertheless, I learned something about them that I would not otherwise have known, namely that the older Rufus, who had spent approximately a year avoiding capture as a stray in her youth before being brought to the pound, was far more interested than younger, stay-at-home Puppy to venture out into the unknown, embracing the heady bouquet of each new patch of grass, especially those well-trodden by fellow canines, while Puppy longed only to find a soft mossy spot upon which to lay her weary old pelt with a sigh.
For us, the teenage years bring the end of childhood but for dogs the end of life. I had been mortified when the trappings of adulthood were thrust upon me suddenly at the age of thirteen, whereas my own children couldn’t wait to make a lopsided, stumbling dash toward maturity. Just as they and I reacted differently to the onset of adolescence, so too did Puppy and Rufus respond differently to old age. Rufus was active almost until the end, slowing only in the final week of her life and dying suddenly overnight. Puppy followed almost exactly a year later, being put down at the vets after months of moving ever more slowly until, one day, she lay down in the street and could no longer get up again. Six months after that, we adopted a new pair of dogs to take up their places in our hearts but when Puppy and Rufus died, to help me in my grief, I wrote elegies for each of them. Here they are:
Ode to Rufus
A child’s drawing of a dog, knee-high, pointed ears,
Straight from a Lowry painting.
Glossy and slightly greasy with the musculature of a bodybuilder,
Barrel-chested and wasp-waisted,
The profile of Anubis, the symmetrical repose of the Sphinx.
‘Muscle on a rope,’ we called her, never one for walking to heel,
But suddenly she would pause and rise up on her hind legs, rotating,
Periscope-like, surveying the horizon for quails.
She wouldn’t allow us rest for a moment upon a rock,
Yipping, nudging and licking us with the inky-spotted tongue.
Terrier-obsessed with the scent of rabbits, if she slipped her collar,
She would run and run, without so much as a glance over her shoulder,
Forgetting she was ever owned.
She once ran over a mountain range and was found forty miles away.
We mused that one day, when she was old, she would walk beside us,
Perhaps even off her lead,
But that moment, nearly two decades later, was all-too fleeting,
A week before she died.
In later life, she impressed everyone with her Flamenco
When meeting other dogs, clacking her onyx nails on the ground,
Sharp turns and erect posturing. Her dancing partners,
Often bemused by this spirited grey-faced old lady
Who circled them as they stood inert.
Worshipping the sun, she had a particular spot she went to
At a particular time. She’d sit on her tail, leaning against the wall,
Her back legs splayed in front of her.
We took to inventing Restoration characters, addressing her as
Old Lady Snoring and Old Lady Mouth.
The hair between her foot pads turned white.
Never one to warm to vets with their roving thermometers,
And always an unhappy tolerance for being picked up,
She was reluctantly examined following a spate of falls.
‘She’s eighteen, what will be, will be,’ he said,
And so we waited.
She would not lie down for death, standing and facing the light,
Until a cloud seemed to puff into the inner chambers of her eyes.
We buried her in a landscape she would have loved,
In a grove of pinion pines and cacti bearing purple fruit,
The ground scattered with rabbit droppings.
I follow in her footsteps, patrolling along the narrow dog paths
She threaded about the garden, all that remains of her Earthly journey.
Ode to Puppy
From abandoned fluffy puppy falling over your feet
To daring hound with your majestic puffed chest,
Like Diana, you were always ready for the chase.
I once spotted you far off, pursuing a wild boar,
But, curiously, not at your usual speed,
As if you were putting a safe distance betwixt.
Then there was the mule,
Who tossed you into the air on his muzzle
When you’d attempted to herd his family.
Unabashed, you hurtled into a field of bulls
And when they circled you, sniffing,
You rolled onto your back and wriggled cutely.
Hearing a thunderous bellow in the forest one day,
You dashed in and disappeared. When you finally emerged,
You were strewn with the slobber of the unknown beast.
The clomping of horse carriages past your house
Outraged you, in memory of the horse who was fed
A piece of the bread that you wanted entirely to yourself.
But old age came and you suddenly developed an interest
In squeaky toys, which you would retrieve
With an arthritic friskiness.
A form of canine senility, perhaps.
‘Mr Carrot’ was your favourite.
You carried him to your bed drooling and
Cooing maternally, the puppy you never had.
In your final debilitating illness, I watched, amazed,
As you slept, your legs hurtling across the fields,
Dreaming of the perfect chase.
Auriel Roe is an editor of memoirist.org, the home for high quality literary memoir writing. Her memoir of adolescence A Young Lady's Miscellany will be published in September '21 with Dogberry Books. Her debut novel Blindefellows was #1 in the humour genre in Amazon UK, US and Canada. It has been translated into Spanish and Italian and is also an audiobook. Auriel created the Jane Goodall eightieth birthday portrait and is a Royal Academy shortlisted artist.
Author website: www.aurielroe.com