Back in April, my little mate Charlie dog trotted off into the great beyond. Considering he was a toy poodle who weighed 4.5 kilos and was shorter than a wellington boot, the lack of him has left a great cavern of empty space in life that was not there before he turned up. Kipling knew a thing or two when he wrote:
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
He was a very fine friend to me, and while he has appeared as a supporting character in other stories on this blog, I do feel like he deserves a small entry just to himself.
I adopted Charlie when he was four, and I always took care to avoid calling him a rescue because it was clear that he’d been thoroughly cherished in his previous home. He arrived healthy and well-groomed, with a big bag containing his worldly possessions and a letter entitled ‘Charlie’s habits’. His first owner stayed in touch for the rest of his life, emailing each year on his birthday.
People worry that if you adopt a dog they’ll come with a laundry list of behavioural problems, but the adoption charity had taken a lot of trouble (and nearly four months) to find a good match for a fellow of my considerable incompetence. The little chap who turned up was housetrained and well-mannered, didn’t steal food or grab treats, adored people and didn’t mind other dogs – though in truth he could take or leave most of them.
Of course he wasn’t perfect, but there would have been no fun in that. His groomer and vet in particular needed considerable reserves of patience. He knew that charm was a perfectly acceptable substitute for obedience and he got away with it. Once, at my brother’s place in Hebden Bridge, the front door was left ajar and the first I knew of it was when a lady on the next street called to say that a small dog with my number on its collar had sauntered into her house, hopped up on the sofa and snuggled up to watch Saturday morning telly with the kids.
There were definitely some circus poodle genes in there somewhere. He meerkatted around on his hind legs and was uncommonly dextrous with his paws, dinging bottles, fire irons or anything else that made a noise when he wanted your attention. He batted my boots about when it was time for a walk and pawed at empty bowls until you refilled them. At one stage – for reasons best known to himself – he began standing in open doorways and knocking at the door until you invited him in, like some sort of tiny Velcro vampire.
The plan when I got Charlie was always for him to be a walking companion, and he turned out to be an exceptionally good one despite his size. People with fat Labradors would call him a ‘cat on a lead’ or make horrified comments like ‘you can’t walk that little dog all that way’ when we told them we were half way through a 200-mile trip, but we did and there was almost nothing in life he loved so much as being out on the trail with his mates. Except perhaps a nice comfy lap to fall asleep in at the end of a long day.
Apart from our regular bimbles on the North York Moors, he walked the Pennine Way and the Dales Way, a 70-mile stretch of the England Coast Path, the West Highland and Great Glen Ways, and even the Cambrian Way – which is nearly 300 miles through the Welsh mountains. He grifted countless sausages off café owners and publicans, and snoozed on laps in sunny beer gardens with his chin resting on the table among the empty pint pots. Charlie dog got leaner and fitter much faster than his human companions and by the end of a fortnight his haunches stood out like iron above his chickeny little pins. He was difficult to photograph well but he features as a distracted black smudge in many a picture.
Charlie’s adventures were a learning experience and there was a lot of preparation involved, which perhaps I’ll write about separately someday. His only real Achilles heel was that he felt the cold – especially when rain and wind were involved – so we carried various jaunty-looking waterproofs and warm jackets. In the tent, he slept on a folding sit-mat in his own sleeping bag (which I bodged by cutting the bottom off a cheap Argos one and hemming the raw edge), though he still infiltrated our beds given half a chance.
He walked huge days with his curly tail held aloft, and was only ever carried on a few occasions. Once he spent an afternoon draped round my shoulders after getting a grass seed stuck in his paw, and a couple of times the weather was so foul that he rode inside mine or Christian’s jackets with his head sticking out just below ours – an arrangement that neither we nor he were particularly enamoured of, given how sopping wet he was. One long and scorching day coming off the Brecon Beacons, we resorted to dunking him in streams to keep him cool, though actually he seemed much less harried by the heat than we were.
Then came a year of intermittently ropey health. Mouth ulcers, occasional skin flare-ups, some weight loss, tender paws, stiff joints. His stamina dropped off a little. All small things that showed up singly – easily remedied in themselves and easy to put down to a combination of bad luck, encroaching middle-age and a lack of fitness after extended lockdowns. Repeated blood tests for the usual underlying causes all came back clear, but the vet wasn’t convinced. ‘If you hear the sound of hooves in North Yorkshire, you look for a horse,’ she said unhappily, ‘but I think we need to start looking for a zebra.’
The ‘zebra’ was systemic lupus erythematosus, a rare autoimmune disease with an unpredictable but often fairly bleak outlook. A terrible stroke of luck for such a fit little fellow, and despite the very best of treatment, it just wasn’t something he could beat. Eventually a problem with his heart meant that there was a pretty traumatic end looming, so I plucked up my courage and picked him a better one. A final afternoon sat in the sunshine eating bacon until the vet turned up at the garden gate. He greeted her as the friend she was, and dozed off for the last time in his own bed.
Charlie skittered through life collecting hearts and his passing left a lot of broken ones behind. Chiefly mine, of course. I’ve lived a relatively solitary life in recent times but I was never alone, and over the years a man and dog in such close proximity become almost an extension of one another. Your moods and habits align and begin to move in parallel, and you get into an unconscious way of anticipating each other. I would be sat at my computer upstairs feeling restless and contemplating a walk, then I would hear Charlie shunting my boots about by the front door. The language of loss is rather tired but it’s no less true for that. Fortunately the world is opening up again and I can keep busy, but in quieter moments I still feel like a man without a shadow.
Last week, one of our long-time walking buddies and I hiked up Moelwyn Mawr in North Wales – a summit on the Cambrian Way that was swamped in thick mist when we passed through in 2019 but now presented vast views into Snowdonia and out as far as the Lleyn Peninsula and Anglesey. In my pack was a little bag containing some of Charlie’s ashes. There are a few places I’d like to leave bits of him, but the Cambrian Way was an extraordinary thing for a pocket poodle to have knocked off. A big route like that always feels like a sort of self-contained story with a beginning and an end, and now that Charlie’s own story is complete too, it felt right to try and weave what was left of him into the physical space of the adventure as well as the tale.
I scattered half onto the breeze then passed the rest to Matt.
‘He was a bloody good dog,’ he said.
And he was, you know.