This is a story about a dog.
She wasn’t a particularly notable dog in the traditional sense; she wasn’t tiny, cutesy or adorable, neither was she big, or a particularly impressive example of her breed. She was a smallish, chocolate labrador, the only female in her litter, bred to be a working animal, though in reality her favourite past-time in her later years was traipsing around the house, finding the sunny spots throughout the day to nap.
Her fur never quite made up its mind about what it was doing; on her back it was thick and wavy, around her chest, fluffy and sticking up in all directions, and on her ears velvet soft. She went grey at a young age, around her chin and her eyebrows, and had a little bump in the middle of her head that we always joked was the home to her three lone brain cells. She certainly wasn’t daft however, and she had beautiful golden-y eyes, that always looked a little bit like they were judging you.
Her name was Wispa (like the chocolate bar) and though she wasn’t cute and adorable, or a majestic, working animal, she was our family dog.
There are dog-people in this world, and then there are dog-people. Mum is determinedly a member of the latter category. Raised around gentle labradors as a baby, then brought up in house with a sassy dachshund and a doleful ex-gun dog afraid of guns, it was inevitable that when she grew up, she’d want a dog of her own. My brother and I nagged her about one for years. What kind we’d get, whether it would be a boy or a girl, what the name would be, who would get to hold the lead on walks. Finally, eventually, we got our pup. An adorable, pudgy bundle of fluff with too-big feet to call our very own.
The early years were not easy. Her first night she cried constantly, and I remember standing in the landing in the dark, listening to her, before going to wake up Mum. The next morning we came down to Mum asleep on the sofa, the puppy curled up in her dressing gown on her chest. The troubles didn’t stop there however; Wispa had been raised in a barn with her brothers, rough and tumble play was all she knew, and she took time to feel at home with us. I wept over several destroyed toys and odd shoes that I was sentimentally attached to, and that she had decimated in her puppy teething phase. On one occasion I even asked Mum if we could take her back, and swap her for a ‘nice dog’ instead. We tried puppy training class, which while my brother and I had intitally been excited to attend with her, rapidly came to dread. Wispa was continually the worst performing dog there, and while we were embarrassed on her behalf, she apparently couldn’t care less. On ‘graduating’ the class she received a certificate of participation, which she promptly chewed up on the drive home.
But over time she settled. She began to be not just our dog, the excitable puppy who yanked on her lead and could not, would not retrieve, but a part of the family. She came on holiday with us to the coast, to Devon, to Norfolk, to a little village in the North of Wales. She swam in the sea with my brother and I, jumped over streams and off groins with us, clambered through trees and along shorelines, constantly wanting to keep up with our adventures, to be a part of the gang. She joined us on our first excursions without Mum and Dad, wagging her tail so hard we couldn’t clip her lead to her collar she was moving so much. She dug holes in the beach to keep cool and rolled in them, covering her dark coat in a thick layer of sand, and swam and swam after thrown sticks through the waves.
She became a part of our routine. Our Sunday tradition was observed not in church but in the Leicestershire hills on dog walks, at woods and county parks, hiking through fields and wading in streams. She would run until she could run no more, chasing after sticks that we never got back, playing hide and seek with my brother and I in the bracken, and then she’d zonk out in her bed, snoring loudly all afternoon. But no matter how tired she was, every day, no matter where you were in the house, she would come and find you at 4:45, to give you a nudge, a Look; a gentle reminder that her 5pm dinner time was drawing close, and that we had better be ready for it.
She became a part of our happiness. An enormous part of it. She was the first thing anyone saw on coming through the front door, wagging her tail a little, coming to say hello. She greeted me after school every day, and when the exams built up and the stress got too much, she did more than that. Sometimes I’d come home, sit down on the kitchen sofa and cry, anxious and sad and tired from the day. On those days, she’d always come over, ears flat, eyes concerned, nudging my hands away from my face with her nose, climbing up onto the sofa next to me, even though she knew she shouldn’t, licking away my tears. She was my respite, stroking her fur, listening to her huff and puff. And when we were happy, she was happy. Nothing made her more happy than Mum or Dad chasing her round the garden, when she’d hunker down low, tail between her legs, and whizz through the trees and bushes, uncontrollably excited. At Christmas she tolerated the tinsel we wrapped in her collar for the scraps in her bowl, and the fact she loved discarded wrapping paper, which she always enjoyed far more than any new toy we’d bought for her.
She became a part of our stories. All her funny quirks and habits and bad things she did developed into more family myths and legends than we know what to do with. Like the time she went into Granny’s handbag looking for dog treats, and then paraded through the living room, oblivious of the fact the handbag had caught around her neck. Or the time she licked the meringue off the top of the lemon meringue pie, and Nana scraped off the dog-licked part and served it all the same. Or all the times she would get up and demand to be let out of the room if pans were clashed too loudly, or voices raised in lively debate, because no one hated anger as much as her. Or the few (very, very few) times we’d give her something in her bowl she didn’t like, like raw carrot or rhubarb, and she’d try a mouthful or so and then look up at you, expression disdaining. Whenever she did anything bad, you would know instantly. She’d skulk in, looking acutely guilty, trying to apologise before we even found the evidence, and the sight was so entertaining we’d inviariably forgive her on the spot but keep up the pretence of anger for our own amusement.
She became a part of our lives. She was just always there – lying deliberately in the path of the hoover when we vacuumed so you’d have to ask her to move, and she could fix you with a mortally offended look. Lurking in the kitchen when anyone was cooking, hoping for the odd titbit. Getting in the way and jumping in the boot of the car when we were packing to go anywhere, desperate to not be left behind. The few times she accidentally got shut out of the front door, she would wander around to say hello to the neighbour’s dog and her best friend, but eventually wander right back and sit patiently in the drive, waiting to be let back in. She always loved home.
She was sassy, sweet and more emotionally in-tune than any other dog I’ve ever met. She never learnt to retrieve, and never, until her final hours, stopped being hungry and willing to eat more food than she could ever feasibly manage. She charmed family and friends with her sweet nature and colourful character. She was our routine, our frustration, our joy, our family; she was my brother and my best friend, and a huge part of our most precious childhood years. And I will miss her more than I can say.
As her health declined, Wispa became a bit doddery and confused, bumping into things and taking more naps than not. On walks, she’d start pottering after small children in the park – thinking they were my brother and I. Even in her worst years, she was reliving her best.
You had nearly 14 wonderful years Wispa. Thank you for cementing our family as a nuclear unit, and for filling that time with laughter and love.