Goodbye Skipper…Thank you for changing my life

You came to us during a dark time. With three young children we had been asked to leave our rented home as the house was being sold. My husband had also just lost his job. We found another house nearby, one that would except me working from home as a childminder but after just a month of living there, we received a letter telling us the house was being demolished within six months to make way for flats. They had taken our deposit and let us move in knowing it was being destroyed. We were gutted.

I felt like everything was dark and hopeless. As a parent, I felt such guilt that my children had to suffer this uncertainty. And then in the middle of that I decided to get a puppy. It was a stupid time to get a puppy but it had been over five years since my last dog had died and the houses we had rented since then had all stipulated no pets. I didn’t want that again. I knew I needed something, you see. Something that was just for me. At that time, I had not written anything in years. I had given up long ago on my childhood dreams of being a writer and working with animals. I loved my children and loved being a childminder, but it was all about giving, it was about time management and organising activities, it was about paperwork and largely, exhaustion, with nothing left of myself at the end of the day.

So I found a litter of lurcher pups on the internet and we went to visit you and in February 2010 you came home with us. Life was instantly brighter. Now we had to find a home that would allow dogs and funnily enough, we did, right away. A lovely house on a country lane only ten minutes drive from the town and schools, but with a semi-rural setting. I couldn’t believe it would be our home but it soon was and has been for the last ten years.

Everything finally fell into place. I was so grateful, for you and for our new home. We could have chickens and ducks, grow vegetables, do whatever we wanted. A river runs past us and we only have to walk down the lane to play in it. My husband got a new job in walking distance to the house and not long after that I started to think about changing jobs, now that we were settled.

And that was because of you Skipper. I remembered what I wanted as a child. How I thought my life would be. I would be a writer, surrounded by animals. Maybe I would work in a rescue centre or as a dog-walker. I would be living my childhood dreams. I knew I had to do it, so I handed in my notice as a childminder and started work as a dog-walker. This meant I could concentrate on you far more. I also started fostering for a local dog rescue at this time. In between walking dogs, I sat at the laptop and wrote. All those years I had wasted not believing in myself, not believing I had the time to write…and now here I was. Doing it. Because of you, Skips.

You changed my life when I most needed to. You pushed me forward by forcing me to look back. I love my life now, having gone on to publish ten novels with many more on the way. I started my Community Interest Company Chasing Driftwood Writing Group in 2015 and it continues to go from strength to strength. And you were there the whole time…

You changed my life, Skipper. You helped me find myself again. You made me fall in love with sighthounds and lurchers and now I will always have them in my life.

Of course, you were not easy. You were a learning curve! When I look back now your naughtiness makes me laugh. I tried for weeks on end to get you to sleep on your own in the kitchen. Don’t give in, everyone said, just let him cry it out. I left you a lovely bed, plenty of toys and a jumper of mine so you would have my scent. I tried ignoring you but you screamed, literally screamed like a tortured child. After moving house, I didn’t bother shutting you in the kitchen anymore. I just couldn’t handle that level of anguish so I put your bed at the foot of ours on the floor and you went straight to sleep and didn’t even make a mess in the night. Problem solved.

But of course we had to go out and leave you alone sometimes. Never for long but oh my, how you hated it! You had a large kitchen with a lovely bed, toys, chews, treats, a kong full of treats, yet more treats hidden in cardboard boxes and tubes for you to find. And what did we come back to every time? A river of poo and wee which you had happily trod in and smeared all over the floor, walls, doors etc, not to mention you soon worked out how to climb onto the sideboard and knock the washing up all over the floor! Again, it just wasn’t worth it, so I stopped shutting you in and if I went out I left you the whole house. And funnily enough, you never did a thing…

That’s not to say you didn’t have a suitably destructuve phase. Of course you did. Chewed a big old hole in the arm of the sofa, chewed a few carpets and rugs and the wooden bannisters. You never touched the kids toys though and the chewing was something you grew out of before it ever became an issue.

Oh but you were naughty…couldn’t control your instincts one bit. When the kids ran about you hunted them down by grabbing their sleeves! If they got in the way whileyou were running, well, they soon learned not to. Once you found your feet and your speed, there was no stopping you. You started actively looking for things to chase. You slaughtered squirrels and rabbits, not to mention a few unlucky chickens and guinea pigs. You would be there one minute on a walk and gone the next, gone so fast I’d hardly even see you go. You’d always come back, usually with an injury or two!

I did my best, playing games with you, jogging with you, looking out for trouble and before long your recall was pretty perfect unless there was a deer to chase of course. In your later years, even that became too much trouble for you.

You were always in the way…Every time I turned around you were there trying to tell me something. You knew the time, your life ran on clockwork. It’s walk time. Dinner time. Walk time again. Time the kids got back from school so you could devour the leftovers in their lunchboxes. Oh what a greedy dog! Nothing was safe! You counter surfed and could reach the unreachable! A whole leg of lamb you ran up the garden with. An entire apple and blackberry crumble you wolfed down when I left it on the side to answer the door. The contents of the fridge on more than one occasion. A whole 1kg tub of Stork which you promptly threw up everywhere. Entire bins, ripped and shredded on the kitchen floor or sometimes for extra fun, carried upstairs and spread out all over my bed! A bag of sugar once, still not sure how you reached that, but I came home to a thick white path all through the house… The gerbils food and treats; you climbed on a chair to get their plastic tub down from a shelf and then broke the lid and ate the lot. Bird food! Grapes! Oh my god how many times did you climb like a monkey to eat the kids Xmas calenders! Even this last Xmas, our last with you, you managed to get into the lounge and eat some presents! And the reason we always shut you out of the lounge at Christmas? You seemed to think it was highly important to piss on the Christmas tree every time you saw it.

Every left over crumb in the bin was yours and you would hang around until we were out or in bed before you would start to root through for it. Clever boy, you never stole in front of us, always biding your time. I always knew if you were sat on the stairs watching the kitchen it was because someone had left a crumb of something somewhere you knew you could reach and you were just waiting.

Oh the times I came home to utter chaos…

But boy, I do miss your greetings. You’d spot us from the upstairs window and the howling/crying would start in earnest. You sounded like the happiest boy alive that your humans were home. Your feet up on the gate, your body wriggling while you howled a high pitch hello, you’re home! And you would turn in circles while I greeted you. Then you’d be in the way of course, no sense of space whatsoever, I was always tripping over you or telling you to get out of the way.

How many times did I call you a bloody dog or a bloody twat?

Every day.

Oh but I loved you, boy. If there is anything I wish it’s that you knew and understood how loved you were. I loved your howling when I came home, your circles and the way you leaned your whole body against my legs for fuss. You were a great leaner! Everyone always said how loving and gentle you were, everyone loved how you leaned on them. And how you’d demand fuss by poking your head into laps and nudging people, sending many a cup of tea flying! No one could resist your gentle charms.

It’s like a hole now, you are gone. I come home and you are not there howling for your mummy. I miss you being in the way. I feel sad when I don’t have to put the rubbish bin behind the kitchen sink taps because that was the only place you couldn’t get it. I feel sad when someone leaves leftovers on a plate on the side and it’s still there in the morning…

I miss you on walks, so slow and steady towards the end. Always looking at me. What was that about, old boy? What were you trying to tell me? Those eyes, melted chocolate and long lashes. You were so beautiful, so graceful and I’ve never seen a faster dog, when you were young, the ground would shake under your feet.

You taught me so much, gave me so much, You gave me back myself, made me realise who I was and what I wanted. You made me brave. You made me calm. Oh how I miss our long walks on the common, our place eh? Ours. I still think you will come back, you know. It’s like maybe you are on holiday. It feels so empty without you and the tears are permanently caught in my throat.

You were such a good boy Skips. You loved me so much You were so loyal to me. You didn’t want to go and I know that. You fought and fought, still wanting walks and food even when your body was totally giving up on you. It was like you were determined to ignore it. That haunts me now. That you didn’t want to go, didn’t want to leave us. Loyal until the end.

Skipper, I will always love you. I will always miss you. You were not an easy dog but you were one of us. We all miss you massively. Thank you for being the best dog in the world ever, for being my best friend. I felt like we just got each other. In many ways, we were very similar. You never really understood other dogs the way I’ve never really understood other people. We were both shy and introverted sometimes. We liked our space and our peace and quiet and our time together. I will never forget our time, Skips. I will never forget our journey. It was not long enough but it was significant and I was so lucky to have you. Darling boy, I love you and miss you. Don’t sleep tight or rest in peace boy…just keep running xxx

For now, I Can Still Carry You

Tonight, the last night you will be two years old, I lay next to you in your bed, and you pulled my arm under your head, as you always do, and with three cars clutched in your hands, you said to me; “I want to get in Mummy’s tummy.”

I giggled and asked you; “why?”

You said; “to hide.”

Minutes later you were sleeping soundly, so I kissed my two-year-old goodnight for the last time, retrieved my arm and snuck out of your room. Just before story time I’d grabbed you and pulled you across my lap. I said I was checking to see if you still fit there, and you did. You still fit in my arms. Just. You pointed out that your feet were sticking out and you were right. They were miles away.

Another year has passed and we’ve sped through it together, despite both our efforts to slow things down. You, with your feet dragging on dog walks and constant questioning; “what’s that? What’s that? What’s that?” and me, with my addiction to grabbing you and holding you as tight as I can, while you wriggle to be free.

You’re not so much a toddler any more, my little man. You’re about to be three. You’re a little boy. You still ask for my arm at night and I still have to lay with you until you fall asleep, and more often than not you end up in our bed at some point, but I treasure those moments as I know how quickly your next birthday will approach. Last year, I was thinking; for now, you still fit in my arms. This year, I am thinking, for now, I can still carry you.This year will see changes coming our way. Pre-school is on the horizon. You’ll have to leave these arms and trust someone else’s. You’ll have to learn to run to them when you fall and scrape your knees. And I’ll have to drive back home without you, to an empty house.

Even now, the thought makes my breath hitch in my throat and tears fill my eyes. That’s what you are to me, my blue eyed boy, you are the hitch in my throat and the grasp to my heart. I can barely look at you sometimes without tears flooding my eyes, without the urge to grip you and hold you so tightly it would hurt. And it’s been like that since the beginning because you are the last one, and the straggler at the end of this beautiful, breathtaking journey. This journey into motherhood that back then saved me from myself, and even now, saves me from the darkness of this uncertain world.

The first time around, I remember holding your biggest sister, when she was oh so tiny, and she had the same big blue eyes that you have, and we stood at the window together in the hospital where she had been born. And I was exhausted and utterly in love and the most excited person in the world. For months I had been talking to her in utero, telling her my plans and dreams, giving her advice, talking to her about life, the universe, and everything. And now here she was, filling my arms, making my arms feel like that was what they had been made to do. Hold her. And staring into that perfect face, feeling the most terrifying yet soul fulfilling explosion of love, enough love to last a lifetime.

I looked at her and thought it would be slow. I thought we had so much time ahead of us and she was so tiny, so fragile and pink and new, it seemed impossible that she would ever walk, or talk or pull her hand out of mine. But she did. So quickly I was left blinking. I held my second baby girl in the murky waters of a hospital pool, catching her underwater and pulling her up to my chest. I was the first person to touch and hold her, and she didn’t cry, not once. I had to unwound the cord from her legs and I was laughing and crying and as high as a kite. It’s still bizarre to me how you can be so utterly in love with a strange, new person.

The third time, I met your brother, and he didn’t cry either. Just lay in my arms and sucked his thumb. I knew by then how fast time would go and I truly thought he would be the last one. But I didn’t want any of it to be for the last time…not yet. So the thought of you was born with your brother. Every time I held his hand, and felt him fall asleep against my shoulder, I longed for it not to be for the last time. I longed to be able to do all those things again. My love for him, my addiction to love, brought you into this world.

You, my angel faced baby boy, you are the last one. And everything we do now is for the last time. A few months after you turned two we had our last breastfeed. Not long after that you wore your last nappy. And now you want to do everything yourself. Soon the last pushchair ride will happen. One day you won’t want me to lie with you while you fall asleep. There will be so many first times and so many lasts.

We know we won’t go through this again, and that one day this journey, in many ways will be over. Children don’t stay. They grow bigger and older and they move on. You look into their faces and you still see the baby and the toddler and the child, like ghosts. You can still hear the things they used to say, the words they used to mispronounce, and I know so much of your dad and I’s future, will involve reminiscing about the funny things you all did.

You’ve just stopped saying ‘deed-do’ and you now say thank you instead. ‘Deez’ is now please. A year ago you were only just putting words together, but now you’re bossing us all about, telling us we’re your best friends, but that we also have to go to prison, and do we want food from your shop? You think everything is amazing; running down hills, scrambling through trees, building dens. And you ‘wud’ everything. You’re soaking up everything I teach you about nature. You point at weeds and ask what they are called and if we can eat them. You remember some of them and tell me first. You ‘wud’ crows and holly bushes, and you ‘wud’ nettles and bees and Oaks. I hope you wud everything and find everything amazing for the rest of your life.

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This time three years ago I was waiting for you to arrive. You were two weeks late, had to be induced and got stuck on the way out making it the most horrific birth I’ve had. They rushed you from the room and it felt like forever waiting for you to come back. But I heard you cry and saw your face and when you came back, I felt like an animal, wanting to snatch you into my arms and sniff you all over. Mine. Mine. That’s the intensity of the love. The person you would kill for and die for. I remember those post-birth moments with all of you, as clear as day. The exhaustion, the cold sweat, the shaking, the after pains, and the weight of the baby in my arms, making everything okay, making the world brighter, life more vivid, me stronger. Never ever wanting to let go.

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But let go we must. Us mothers. We do it every year when you wake up on your birthday. We are letting go bit by bit. When you blow out your candles on your cake, we’ll be looking away and wiping the silly tears from our eyes.

 

You can’t get back in my tummy, my love. We can’t ever go back. I’ll just wipe the tears away when you’re not looking and keep telling you a thousand times a day how much I love you (and it’s more than three) And one day soon you won’t fit in my lap either, and one day soon I won’t be able to pick you up and carry you any more. So for now, let’s hold on as tight as we can. Let’s play hide and seek and read Mr Men books, and serve mud pies and dendelions in our shop. Let’s walk the dogs and go the way you want to go, never on the path, and scratch our legs and find fox holes and rabbit warrens. Let’s play cars, and play-doh and Lego, because one day you won’t want to anymore. Let’s go outside. Let’s snuggle up. Let me and you hold onto each and every day as tight as we possibly can.

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When Fear Drives Fiction

So, I’m reading George Orwell’s 1984 for the first time and wondering if what deterred me from it for so long was fear of fear. By that I mean there is already so much to be afraid of in this world, why would I want to give myself more? I’m currently writing from a place of fear and uncertainty and it’s pretty obvious that I’m not the only human feeling like that right now. And I mean on a daily basis. It’s like that Monday morning stomach lurch, except it happens every morning. It’s like the heavy sluggish twisting guts you get before an exam, before a driving test, before you do anything you’re scared to do. Except it never goes away. It’s there all of the time. Weighing me down, wringing me out, making me pause to catch my breath. It’s like that too; like I can’t breathe properly, like there is a deep and shaking level of fear rising up to the surface, and if I am quick I can take a breath and send it back down again. Deal with it another day. Move on quickly into the light.

And there is light. It’s vital to remember that. There is light and love everywhere, and I hope you’ve got as much as I have in my life. When I feel too bad, when the sinking feeling starts to drag me down, I buck myself up and busy myself with the things I love. My beautiful children. Loud music. My garden full of flowers, vegetables and animals. Writing and books.

I’m examining the world right now and wondering if life imitates art, or if it is in fact the other way around. Does art reflect the world we have already created? Or does it project our fears for the future based on what’s going on around us right now? George Orwell must have been pretty terrified, that’s all I can think. Big Brother. Thought police. Uniforms and Two Minutes Of Hate. Chilling stuff. Which all feels rather apt and grim at the moment.

I’m writing to you from a post Brexit Britain. I hate the word Brexit. To me it sums up the dumbing down we’ve been subject to for so long now. Let’s join two words together and make a new one so we don’t have to say too many words! Now I don’t care how you voted, and I’m not going to talk here about my vote, or the whole situation in any real depth. I personally feel that there were good reasons to stay and to leave, but that as usual the government and the media focused on immigration and fed us lies, and what an ugly divisive country this now looks as a result. Let me say again, if you voted to leave, I respect that vote and your reasons for it, and I’m not going to talk about what might happen next. What saddens me most right now is the applause and delight demonstrated by far-right groups across the globe. Whether you like it or not, there are many people out there using this situation to legitimise racism and xenophobia, and that makes my heart sink. I thought we had come so much further than that, but it feels like we are slipping backwards all the time.

It feels like we are now adrift, with no one stepping in to guide us through this unchartered territory. The Labour party and the Conservatives are in turmoil. Everything feels weird and unsafe. I can’t help but wonder what future writing will evolve from this tumultuous time in politics. And that’s the only way to get through it, I feel. Write about it.

My next two books certainly reflect a lot of my current fears, thought I don’t think I was entirely conscious of it to begin with. The Tree Of Rebels was conceived one day when I signed an online petition to prevent Monsanto patenting seeds. I didn’t really know too much about the case, but some very concerned friends of mine deemed it a very serious issue, so I signed it and hoped for the best. It got me thinking though. What if a company could patent seeds? All the seeds? What if they could then, bit by bit, own nature? What if in the future, growing your own food was banned? Surely a government with complete control over nature, would have complete control over its people. The idea made me wonder further; how would this society operate without total rebellion? Well, the people would need to be thankful for what they were given, and what makes people thankful? Perceiving life to be better now than it was then. A story driven by wonder and what if’s…but ultimately fear. I’m a keen gardener myself. I worry so much about the state of the world, so I’m trying to become more self-sufficient, just in case. The thought of someone telling me it’s now illegal to grown my fruit and vegetables or raise my chickens and ducks is terrifying. The thought of a giant and powerful company with extremely dubious ethics essentially owning nature appalls me. So I wrote about it.

Writing helps me make sense of the world. Or at least it is my desperate attempt to. I guess we all have our fears. Things that keep us awake at night. I’ve felt for a while that the world and all it’s people are heading towards some kind of tipping point. Is the world now worse than it has ever been? I scroll through my Facebook feed to witness a never-ending roll call of human misery, animal abuse, environmental damage and worse than all of that; apathy. I feel sick to my stomach, as well as helpless, cynical and angry. Are these the most selfish times we’ve seen? The most brutal? Maybe it is all too easy to look back on the past too fondly. I’m guilty of this myself. I become convinced that the 1980’s and 90’s were a wonderful, simple time. Surely it was all lovely then, wasn’t it? Well no, actually. It’s just that I was a kid and totally unaware.

Fear and dismay drive fiction. We create stories we are frightened of as a way of warning ourselves and others. Helplessness spawns words and worlds and sometimes, if we are lucky, solutions. At least it makes us feel better, anyway. Elliot Pie was born of this frustration with the modern world and the way it is all heading. Elliot is 12 and he wants to do something to help his mother, who is refusing to leave the house after a number of hard knocks. How can he convince her the world is not a bad place filled with bad people?

It’s been quite a task for a writer currently so disillusioned and afraid. But I had to go back and look at it all through a child’s eyes. Elliot doesn’t want to give up on the world yet, or on life. He feels like the adults in his life have all written it off for him before he’s even had a chance to work it out for himself.

Like Elliot, and for my own children, I have to cling onto a dangerous and painful amount of hope. I stand by the very few politicians who have decent intentions. I hope the powers that be don’t prevent them trying to change things. I hope that people are not too apathetic, too far gone, too addicted to reality TV and pointless celebs to fight back before it is all too late. I hope George Orwell was wrong. I hope Elliot Pie is right.

In the meantime, my advice to anyone feeling like I am right now, is to do what you can to ensure love wins. Whatever that means, in whatever way you can, make spreading love and tolerance part of everything you do. This morning I woke up feeling more positive than usual. I decided on the school run journey that I would be kinder than normal, and I let out as many waiting cars as I could. It was actually sad how many of the drivers looked genuinely surprised and thankful. I played some invigorating, uplifting music, told my kids I loved them, and decided that if the two little rabbits in the adoption centre of the pet shop were still waiting for a home, then I would get them. I’d had my eye on them for a while, and once I’d learnt their history (four years of neglect) it was a done deal. I know it’s not much in the grand scheme of things, but every little bit of love counts. And at least I changed the world for them.

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