Author Francesca Haig remembers her first dog, a rescue, rescuer and occasional champagne hatcher
In the first week that we had the puppy, we took her to the beach. She was only tiny, so we were surprised that she paddled out to join us when we swam. After circling us several times, she simply stopped paddling and sank, calmly and apparently happily, beneath the water. We immediately scooped her up, and she appeared unbothered by the experience. What struck me about that moment was her instant and absolute faith in us: she trusted that if she stopped swimming, we would save her. She was right – though over the many years that followed, she saved us far more times than we saved her.
‘Her name is Angelica Blossom Sweetheart Haig,’ my mother had announced, when she brought the little brown puppy home from the local RSPCA shelter. We rolled our eyes – the grandiose name was all the more absurd given the odd appearance of this scrappy rescue pup. Inevitably, ‘Angelica’ become ‘Jelly,’ and then ‘Jelly Bean.’ She was a butch barrel on stumpy legs, with a long, pointed nose. She might charitably have been described as a Daschund/Jack Russell cross; a man on the street once suggested that she must have wombat somewhere in her ancestry, which seemed plausible. With the white blaze down her chest, she also had a distinctly penguin-like appearance, enhanced by the way that she waddled. Her behaviour was as odd as her appearance She was female but always peed with a cocked leg. Despite being spayed, she spent many happy hours vigorously humping either our cat, or a life-size badger toy. Badger had survived more than twenty years since my brother was a baby, but barely survived Jelly’s ravages.
My father, who occasionally speaks like Winston Churchill, once said: ‘Never has a creature so small brought greater happiness to a family more in need of it.’ Jelly entered our lives during a desperately unhappy period when my sister was hospitalised for several years for a serious illness. Some people might think this a bad time to take on the responsibility of a new dog; my parents decided, wisely, that it was exactly what we needed. In between hospital visits, doctor’s appointments and all the crises that come with such things, we always returned home to a warm, happy creature who wanted only to be fed and loved. The value of such a thing is hard to overestimate, and it kept the hospital and its misery at bay. In doing so, Jelly was a small, furry miracle.
One of the firsts things Jelly did, on coming to live with us, was to dig up our old dog, buried in the garden. Our previous dog, though much adored, had not been indulged: he slept in a dog basket in the laundry and spent much of his time outside. But Jelly Bean, like the spoilt youngest child, quickly wrangled her way into prime position on the couch or bed. She had no idea that she was a dog (if, indeed, that’s what she was). When I took her to the bayside park to play with the other dogs, she instead hopped up onto the bench next to me and sat watching the other dogs play. Occasionally she would look up at me as if to say: “Perhaps we should consider getting a dog?”
Jelly felt that fetching sticks was beneath her dignity, but whenever my parents opened a bottle of champagne, they would shoot the cork into the garden for Jelly to chase. One day, after such a display, I noticed Jelly turning in circles in a patch of deep grass where she often sat. I looked more closely and found that she had made a nest, a neat round patch in the deep grass, filled with champagne corks, on which she would assiduously sit for hours. It was, we assumed, an effort to hatch and grow more champagne, which is a laudable aim – and we wondered if there were chickens implicated somewhere in her long and dubious bloodline.
The year after Jelly arrived, my parents added a rescue kitten, Rio, to the family. Jelly and Rio rapidly became best friends, in a way that would these days probably be the stuff of viral YouTube videos: wrestling, playing, sleeping on top of each other, and grooming each other. It was always possible to tell when the two of them had been chasing each other in laps of the house because the momentum of their running would leave the rugs pushed half way up the walls. When Jelly was brought home after having surgery for tumours, the cat licked her for hours, top to toe, until Jelly gleamed like a seal.
Despite her love for the cat, Jelly was my mother’s dog first and foremost. Our old dog had been egalitarian in his affections: a true family dog. But Jelly decided early that she belonged to Mum. My sister’s sickness was painful for all of us – my sister most of all – but Mum suffered in a unique way. Teenage girls are hard on their mothers at the best of times; seriously sick teenage girls are even harder. So Jelly allied herself with Mum, and the two of them went everywhere together. Even when Mum came to Europe for a holiday, she took photos each time she saw a sign welcoming dogs into a park, to show Jelly on her return. It sounds a bit bonkers – it probably was – but it made their separation bearable.
Even the hospital couldn’t keep Jelly out. She did some work as a therapy dog, which meant she was allowed into the hospital, where my sister took great pride in accompanying her to visit the patients in the geriatric ward. Jelly showed real forbearance with elderly patients who would sometimes handle her in ways that she otherwise would not have tolerated, such as tugging on her ears. She gave no indications of being a particularly intelligent dog, but on some level, she was aware that these people required a greater patience than she would usually exhibit, and she would sit there patiently as her ears were yanked and pulled.
Sadly Jelly hadn’t heard the idea that mixed breed dogs are supposed to be healthier than pure-breds. She was allergic to grass, pollens, seeds – essentially, the world. The grass allergy was a curse for a low-bellied dog, so she spent much of her life on steroids, and the background noise to our life fin those years was the revolting, rhythmic slurping of Jelly licking and gnawing at her itchy stomach. When she was about ten, had a huge operation to excise tumours. The vet had to remove more than ten per cent of her skin, giving her a temporarily startled and tightened appearance, like a footballer’s wife after the latest face-lift. The prognosis was bad, but Jelly ignored it and lived merrily on, for several years, before the tumours returned and she finally had to be put down. She is missed in the way that loved ones are almost missed: with a kind of incredulity. It seems impossible, somehow, that she is no longer there.
My life as a writer has always tended to focus on darkness. As an academic, I specialise in Holocaust literature; as a poet and novelist, I’ve written depressing poetry and post-apocalyptic novels. It feels strange, then, to sit down and write about that most simple and un-cynical of things: joy. That was the gift of Jelly, in all her absurdities. It was a saving grace, to return late at night, from the hospital, and know that the couch would contain a little creature who wanted nothing more than to rest her chin on your thigh and to have her stomach rubbed. Around her ungainly body, Jelly created a small (and slightly smelly) orbit of happiness.
Now, more than fifteen years after Jelly Bean first came to us, my sister is long recovered, and my parents have a new dog. They have named her ‘Borlotti Bean’ – Lottie – so the bean legacy lives on. Lottie is loved, of course, though perhaps not needed in the same way that Jelly Bean was. My mother, increasingly forgetful, often calls her ‘Jelly.’ None of us has the heart to correct her.