I know it’s not up to the usual photographic standards (hopefully not, anyway!) But I found this recently – this is one of my first dog photographs ever taken: I was about twelve at the time, and it’s of the first dog I ever really loved.
I must have been about ten when Pippa came to live with us. My mum got her from an RSPCA centre when I was at school, picking up a ginger kitten called Lady for my brother on the same day. So walking into the kitchen when I got home, there she was: a wriggly little ball of puppy fluff. I don’t know exactly what breed she was. Today she’d be called a tibetan russell, or bearded tzu… back then she was simply a mongrel dog, or heinz 57. I didn’t care! Looking back, she was quite terrier like in personality, she liked ‘killing things’ and squeaky toys, but I think there were certainly other breeds in there as well!
For me, having spent my childhood moving home, school (and often country) every eighteen months on different army postings, and being quite a lonely child as a result, she quickly became my best friend. A constant companion as I learnt to make friends of my own species, with people who had known each other all their lives and where I often felt an outsider. Pippa was my unconditional friend. We were ‘settled’ by now, in a village in Lancashire and there was no chance of me losing her, as we had the labrador we tried to have once, who was re-homed at six months after an unexpected posting to Germany. Pippa was here to stay.
She was the sort of dog who could tell the time, and would be there waiting for me when I came home from school, sitting on the pavement outside our house and looking up the road, and when I turned the corner at the top, she would come racing to greet me ecstatically, hurling herself at me then following me to my bedroom while I got changed than straight out for her walk.
We walked miles, me and Pippa, exploring the local fields and rivers, sometimes with friends but often just the two of us. We forded Amazon type rivers (she never needed to swim!), braved the field with the bull in and balanced precariously over the stream with the plank bridge. She came everywhere – into the village, round to my friends’ houses: we were completely inseparable. And when I went through the cycling phase, there she was, balanced precariously in the basket I bought for the front of my bike. Happy to sit there and watch the world go by. Not to be recommended – but no harm ever came to her.
Pippa was the happiest dog: friends with the word and especially with me. In all the years I had her I don’t think I ever heard her growl. She started life sleeping in the kitchen, but after being spayed at about a year she was allowed to sleep in my bedroom, ‘just while she recovers’, I remember my dad saying… Needless to say, on that basis she spent the rest of her life ‘recovering’, and would lie in my doorway every night, guarding me from whatever might be prowling the house in the darkness… Had anyone ever tried to burgle us she would probably have rolled over to have her tummy ticked then led him with wagging tail to the family silver, but I felt safer knowing she was there.
I left home at eighteen, and Pippa lived another eight years in ‘retirement’ with my parents, who loved her and walked her… but never across rivers and fields the way I did when I came home, and she was always rapturously pleased to see me when I did. She was put to sleep at about seventeen years after a few years of battling cancer. I was heavily pregnant with my first baby and living halfway across the country by then, but I cried when I heard.
Now when I visit ‘home’ I walk the same paths with my spaniels, but the river seems smaller and shallower and the miles shorter: the plank bridge has been given handrails, and the bull field is surrounded by barbed wire, although the bull is long gone.
But I still occasionally catch myself looking for that flash of white mongrel fluff when I whistle, instead of brown spaniel fur.
Pippa was the sort of dog you would always wish for your kids to have and I loved her dearly. It was to be another twenty plus years before I would get another dog, and it wasn’t until I did that I realised how very much I had needed one.
There’s a saying that ‘Every boy needs a dog’ – I think every child does. I really did, and Pippa was the best I could ever have asked for.