Posted 59d ago
By Jilly Beattie
A letter has sat in the drawer of my bedside cabinet for the last 30 years. It’s tucked into a brown envelope which bears the unmistakable scrawl of my late father, Alan. This letter, a little worn and yellowed now, is worthless and priceless in equal measure.
It is a gentle reminder of the love of my family where dogs were at the heart of everything, their presence long preceding mine. From the moment the envelope landed on my doorstep at my university digs in South Wales, I knew it wasn’t good news.
The weekly letters were written in my mother’s unmistakable bubble handwriting, the words sometimes smudged in her struggle to come to terms with her empty nest. And there was just always a line or two in Dad’s spikey script, a daft joke, some eye-popping gossip - and a cheque.
But this one was different. It contained the news of the death of my dog Barney.
Barney. Pic Adrian Beattie
He was a rescue who’d been at the centre of my life for almost 13 years, taking me from childhood into adulthood. I’d had no better confidante, no more loyal friend and no better company, comfort or driving companion.
Barney had come to our home after we lost two dogs in quick succession leaving us with a house with no dogs for the very first time. Trying to salve our grief my father came home one Thursday night, picked up our local newspaper and announced; ‘We’re getting a dog, I don’t care what dog, we need a dog.” After a scan of the buy and sell pages, we were in the car and on our way.
And after a rather fractious meeting a man handed a lead to Dad and at the end of it a large Black Labrador called Max.
We put him in the boot of the car and he set his amber eyes on me and stared at me the whole way home, emotionless, unreadable. I felt he might just open those big jaws and eat me.
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Dad changed his name to Barney and hoped for the best, but his arrival didn’t fix anything, it only created another problem. This big dog had come from a situation where he had been teased and tortured, he had toenails missing, evidence of burns on the tops of his feet. Given the chance, he would have savaged any man he saw even growling at Dad, my brother and my grandfather.
Barney prowled our home, he stalked our garden, quiet and uncompromising in his decision to keep his distance. We walked him in the dark of night to avoid meeting people because he was so filled with rage, and being strong and fast he was a danger to anyone he decided to hurt.
Jilly's grandfather Grandfather Samuel George with Barney - after a tricky start they built a devoted relationship on hard-earned love and trust, and both lived to the grand old age of 93. Pic: Beattie family
There was little joy in his company in those first months, just a wariness we all shared. Then Dad suggested Barney might make a great police dog and get specialist training, and although I was young I instinctively knew what this was code for; the end.
I said no, he was mad but he was ours, and as I wept my protest, Barney scrambled onto my lap, pawed my chest and licked my tears. It was a moment I’ll never forget. His first real physical contact with us. A show of love, of trust at last, finally an emotion other than rage and in that moment we were all suddenly facing the right direction.
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So we carried on and continued to dose Barney with a heady cocktail of love, patience and devotion. And while he perked up in our home, he still hated men and in truth he should not have been allowed off the lead.
And then one day our world turned on its axis.
Barney's walk was interrupted for a settling of scores
During a coastal walk Barney spotted a man at a set of swings and took off like a rocket. The noise was horrendous, Barney snarling and snapping, the man kicking out trying to push him away, yelling and roaring, and finally shouting: “Max, Max, stop, go on.”
Even as a child of 11 or 12 I should have stepped up, stepped in and taken control of my dog. But my temper quietly broke as I realised that this man knew my dog’s original name. Was this the brute who had hurt him? Was this the monster who'd turned a sweet pup into a watchful, reactive dog? I turned on my heel and walked away.
I arrived home only to be greeted by Barney at the gate, tail wagging, bum wiggling, just the best boy apparently. I checked him all over and he wasn't injured and when I eventually confessed his sin, my parents looked at me open-mouthed.
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Weeks later though, we realised something in our home had changed. Barney had somehow blossomed, relaxed. Those awful low growls had stopped and the ferocious lunging at strangers never happened again.
This dog whom we’d all been wary of was transformed, happy and calm, he settled and enjoyed our home, our family and other dogs.
Barney with his Basset Hounds siblings, Wellington and Nelson, who joined his pack. Pic: Adrian Beattie
For the next 12 years Barney lived life as a model citizen, gentle, trusting and trustworthy - although admittedly he maintained his loathing of our coalman Povey and the feeling was mutual. As I finished my degree, I’d known age was catching up with Barney, his big frame shrinking, his dramatic dashes into the sea turned to paddles, his gait stiff and those beautiful amber eyes getting cloudy.
Across more than a decade he’d been with me through every test and exam, every job and experience, the emotions, the fun and tears, the success and failures, and he’d seen me off to university, with me leaving home in the knowledge he'd be there when I came back.
Then suddenly, quietly he was gone.
The day before my final exam, Barney was put to sleep, his pain taken away, his struggle at an end and his death kept as a secret from me. Others knew though, our friends and neighbours, and even my parents’ gardener Old John; such a gentle soul, he came to the house with his cap in hand, face wrinkled in tears to pay his respects.
During my last exams week I called home and wondered if my parents were planning to divorce because they were acting very odd, stilted, flat, their minds wandering, surely hiding something.
Days later with my finals completed, Dad’s letter landed with me delivering the truth.
It started off chipper, three lines of chat in erratic blue ink, and then below a dense message of sorrow, his writing decreasing in size the further into the story he went. In a way it was a letter of love from a father to a daughter, a reluctant explanation with an unspoken apology that there was no happy ending.
I opened the envelope where it had fallen, took a step backwards and sat on the stair and wept. Alone in my shared student house, the emotion was overwhelming - another few days and I would have been home, back to my boy.
I literally wept for a week. I couldn’t speak to anyone or phone home, I couldn’t face the conversation and I didn’t think I’d ever recover. I wrote home instead to say I’d got the letter and we didn’t mention Barney for a long, long time. In the 30 years that have passed, my love for my dogs has not diminished and my memories of Barney still leave my emotions barrelling.
It is only today after reading Dad’s letter again that it struck me how difficult it must have been to write, how painful for my parents to have helped Barney to a peaceful end and keep that secret to try to protect me.
But in the very worst of times Barney had been a recipient of love, patience and devotion, and so it seems had I.
‘Our sad news is old Barney passed away. When you rang on Sunday we would have told you, but didn’t want to upset you during your exam. Sat 1st June.
After I had given him the usual treatment for his sore eyes and nose, he had great difficulty in breathing.
Well it was a tumour from his nose right down his mouth and throat to his glands.
He could have survived another couple of days but in excruciating agony but the vet said there was no hope and only pain for Barney.
He had just been bad for about a week, eating ok but losing weight. We thought he had a bad cold.
Poor Mum had taken Barney into the vet on Saturday morning but could not face leaving him.
The vet rang me at home and when Mum came home I had to take Barney back. Very sad but you honestly wouldn't have recognised him as our Barney at the end.
Sam and Vi were very upset, so was David and his wife. And Old John came to pay his respects and he was crying.
The other dogs were mystified and Sandy does not know who to chase in the mornings. The bassets are behaving better at night I suppose now that Barney is not there to hassle them getting into bed.’
Love Dad xxx