Rituals, Repetitions – a year ago – January 2018

I wake up gradually, lying in bed with a huge mug of tea, and looking across the neighbours’ rooves opposite to the bare trees. Actually, it’s nothing quite as active as ‘looking’: my sight-hound, Sadie, does proper looking – purposeful, focussed – teaching me what that word really means. I, on the other hand, sip cooling tea with an inward eye, while my mind wanders through familiar sequences of memory: how I came to be here; the stories of mistakes now long gone; how I failed to see the consequences. The usual stuff.

Sadie is my ‘new dog’, my lurcher. I love that possessive, the way it feels itchy in my mind, like a lie or a stolen thing. She doesn’t seem like a creature anybody could own yet she is my responsibility, so there’s some level of ownership there. It’s up to me to keep her in good fettle. I thought that would be easy.

‘New’ – well, let’s be honest – not that new. I brought her home in October, nearly four months ago. She still feels new to me. Maybe she sees me with the same slightly edgy surprise.

A bit before Christmas she was licking at a sore patch on her pad but those very thorough attempts to heal it weren’t doing too well, so I took her to the vet. Checkup. Antibiotics. Cone of shame. Keep an eye on it – all that. It got better. Only, lately she’s been licking another place raw. Online, I find that what was going on was just the tip of some iceberg. Sadie is an obsessive licker. She has a couple of skin ulcers – lesions – that she has created by licking, and which she tends carefully with long smooth loving licks. They will get worse and worse, and some dogs lick their way down into deep tissue. Needless to say, there are some pretty repulsive photos of these conditions online, and some gloomy prognoses. Telling a dog off for licking doesn’t work: they just become secretive with it. Well, wouldn’t you?

It turns out that the act of licking and the sensation of being licked release endorphins – a boost of happiness, feeding a habit that’s hard to break. That, of course, suggests that Sadie is unhappy (guilt, guilt – I am failing my dog) or maybe that the habit was laid down during her previous hard life. She was, after all, a starving stray who had had numerous litters. She must have been a wonderful mum, with all those puppies to lick into life, and then to lick clean. Now the licking has become self-harming, and possibly unstoppable.

I’ve decided that my way forward with Sadie is to keep her happy, and distracted from the sore spots: I’m love-bombing her with petting and conversation; I ponder letting her sleep on my bed at night, (Later: in fact I did, but just for two nights before finding it wasn’t necessary. She doesn’t lick at night.) It’s a slight difficulty that she doesn’t seem to know how to play, but that may come. She’s quick on the uptake – has learned to jump into the car. I saw her pick up a toy yesterday and flick it up in the air. Also, Bandit hasn’t entirely taken to her yet, nor she to him. She prefers other greyhound-types, he prefers chasing a stick.As I go over and over it down the years, it seems worse and worse in my mind, as hindsight reveals the misunderstandings and follies I couldn’t see back then, and I am amazed at my younger self. This is not a useful, still less a healthy thing to be doing. What can possibly be its purpose? I wonder now if there is a kind of soothing in these repetitions of old narratives, this puzzled search for meanings.

I wasn’t thinking all that this morning. In fact, the tea, the warm dog’s body, the bare trees with their little flickering birds, the music on the radio were scarcely present to me. Instead my mind set off incorrigibly to one of those long-gone turning points. The hopes, stupidities and blindnesses that brought me so effortfully to here. Here is not such a bad place to be, speaking objectively, but in my repetitious mind it is an error. All unplanned, this morning I find myself rerunning our move from Cambridge to Leamington in 1978. There’s a palimpsest of muddled memory, like a photo taken with camera-shake, that I return to. Very little of it is in words. A picture, first, of two little boys looking out the front window, waiting for mummy to come, and with that picture comes, re-experienced, a feeling of irritation and pity, mingled, because I wouldn’t do, they wanted her so much, and she probably wasn’t coming. We never knew till the last minute, through those months. It would be up to me to pick up the pieces. Overlaid, and usurping that image is a holiday photo taken about the same time or a maybe a year earlier, of the same little boys, one in a yellow and white stripey T-shirt, looking out a window, their expressions very focussed, almost anxious. There’s no indication in the picture but I believe that they were going for a ride on a little steam train possibly in Wales. That single photo stands forever in my mind as an image of the other, same yet different, repeated event. Overlaid on all this is a fragment of information, dropped casually at some point in the intervening years – more than five years ago, less than twenty – “I told them they would be closer to mummy when we moved house, and see more of her.” It’s a turn of the screw, for at an adult level it was true, but children can be very literal and tenacious of the words we give them. So now I suppose that’s what they were doing, believing that remark, holding to it, and looking, looking to see more of her. The palimpsest now includes anger, recognition, understanding. A wish to go back in time and place, to solve the ‘if only’s and make it all more bearable in the now. Memory can’t even achieve the first of those wishes, but each repetition of that time travel to the much revised and revisited past lodges it more firmly. Down to the bone.

One Response to “Rituals, Repetitions – a year ago – January 2018”

  1. Woman walking Max Says:

    Your reflections are unflinching and candid and subtly described. I hope they brought some acceptance of the past.

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