SWB recalls a time when the wheels came off…

So another week, another Tenx9: they’re coming thick and fast at the moment. I met the lovely Pádraig (who co-runs the evening with his partner Paul) at a Corrymeela event last Sunday and he told me they a couple of speakers short, so I volunteered to share the tale of a time around Christmas when my life hit the skids. I think the moral of the story is that it’s okay to sit in your arse once in a while, and not take on too much. Especially if you’re a trifle unhinged…

So pour a coffee, sit back and when you’re through, just pour another coffee. Here’s the story:

“Can we get a dog, can we? Please please please?” This was me to my husband (to whom I lovingly refer as LSB, or Long Suffering Bastard) two years ago. In fairness we weren’t really getting a dog, we were fostering one; my idea of course. LSB sighed and gave in, as he had done five years earlier when I’d suggested a baby, then eight months after she’d been born when I’d suggested another. Really, there should be a support group for beleaguered gentlemen such as he. It could be called ‘Demented Husbands of Belfast Unite’ and they could meet once a week in the Erigle. In fairness, such clubs may already exist.

The story beings at Halloween and ends at Christmas, so is bookended by two highly charged holidays if you have small children and busy lives. But we shouldn’t have been fraught, because I had made the decision to give the teaching up for a while and focus on the family. What was the point in working anyway, when I was handing my entire salary over to a crèche? Oh no, said I, I shall be a full-time mum. Our home shall be a place of warmth and conviviality, with delicious fare à la Nigella. I shall swan about in floaty garments while the children paint at easels in Cath Kitson smocks. The only thing this picture lacked was a golden retriever to bring my husband his slippers when he returned grey and drawn from the office. And so that’s when the giving bit of the story comes in.

Despite my lofty aspirations for domestic goddess of the year, nagging doubts assailed me. I had been a teacher, in a top grammar school. I had thus been thoroughly institutionalised: my former life had been dictated by bells. Teach this class, plan these lessons, mark these exams, record the results, go home, drink some wine and do it all over again. Would this new life, carting one child to her nursery and taking the other to the park be enough to occupy me? I wasn’t sure.

No, I felt it imperative that I contribute to society as a whole and perhaps undertake some charity work. So in an act of tremendous stupidity I volunteered to foster a puppy for a charity that provided ‘assistance dogs’ for children with Asperger’s syndrome and autism. Oh the irony! There was me, fretfulness personified, thinking that taking on an eight week old Labrador retriever was a good idea. The kids were still fitful sleepers and one was still in nappies. There was already enough shit in our house to make the Brexit negotiations look clean.

The convenor of the charity did have a serious chat with me before I took the dog on. ‘It’s hard work’ she said. “You’ll have to bring her to our specific puppy classes once a week, and walk and toilet train her according to our guidelines.” “We can do that,” I assured her. We we busy anyway with the weans, a small dog wouldn’t make much difference. Would it?

And then we got her. (I’ll call her Holly to protect her identity). Never had I seen the like. She was a gorgeous red fox retriever and LSB took one look at her and melted. She became his pet. In the evening he would have at least one child on his knee and the dog would rest her head on his shoulder. “You aren’t supposed to cuddle her all the time,” I remonstrated. ‘It’s in the guide book.” “She’s only a wee puppy, bugger off,” said he. We may have spoilt her a little.

Whether it was because of all the attention or not, Holly became quite demanding. She barked, constantly. She was like an unexploded bomb in our kitchen. Once awake, she demanded attention (or food or both) right away, and barked until she got it. I was not a natural at this dog-training lark, so generally acquiesced until she settled down. This was not what it suggested in the manual.

Remember Marley and Me where the dog knocks the toddler flying and Jennifer Aniston’s character nearly has an embolism? That was me, for two months. Though only a pup, she hurtled around leaving broken toys, cups and up-ended children in her wake. I stopped sleeping, and became a slave to the puppy and my children. I spent a large proportion of my day picking up poo. I started washing my hands Lady Macbeth style until they were red and raw. My nerves were permanently a-quiver and I started feeling very bleak. Never mind the proverbial black dog, I had a real-live russet one, and she was going berserk in my living room.

With a sense of foreboding looming over me, I took Holly to the final training session before the holidays. The trainer suggested we dress up in Christmas attire to have a little fun. I had bought Holly a red fleecy suit because it was so cold in the microclimate that exists in the Four Winds area. I myself, had intended to don a fetching elf costume I’d ordered from Amazon to wear at our local parkrun on Christmas Day. However, as I hunted that morning it was nowhere to be found. The only thing I could lay my hands on was a red jumper, and a short, black, leather skirt. In my haste I didn’t fully appraise this ensemble before leaving the house, but I did have time to appreciate the effect in the full-length mirror at the Club where the training took place. It was certainly festive, but in a sort of low-end shop window in Amsterdam sort of way.

I had got it all very wrong. The party bit was meant to be for after the training session, which I imagined had been suspended for that week while we drank coffee and exchanged tips on dog training. I was reprimanded for not having brought her official training bib. I then had to run up and down the hall in said leather skirt to demonstrate how she could walk to heel. She couldn’t, and was in no form to co-operate. We looked a trifle foolish in our matching crimson outfits and by now my face blended in too.

But Holly wasn’t the only one in bad humour. From the outset, something seemed very wrong with all the dogs. Some were snapping and growling and none were compliant. It was tense. The trainer was none too pleased and offence was taken all round. I left in tears and decided that this had been a foolish move.

After a few festive rows with the family, I felt myself unravel. I couldn’t shake the worrisome thought that perhaps the dogs knew something that us humans didn’t. I recalled the 2004 tsunami in South East Asia, where several days before the disaster, it was recorded that the animals had begun behaving oddly and fleeing the coastal areas. The recent news headlines had been apocalyptic. Maybe we should all have been listening, to the dogs.

I finally had the wit to ring my GP and explain my predicament. I told her my theory about the dogs and there was a brief pause on the other end. She suggested that I come in. Immediately. She listened and nodded. “You’re experiencing some very irrational thoughts,” she surmised. “No,” I told her. “I don’t think there’s anything unreasonable about any of this. To me this is all very real.” I felt a bit like Sarah Connor when she predicts full nuclear fall-out in Terminator 2, and tells the doctor if he’s not wearing factor two million sunblock in August 1997 “it’s all going to feel pretty fucking real to him too.”

‘Give the dog back’ said the doctor. She prescribed some pills to settle me and I acknowledged that I’d been ignoring symptoms of extreme anxiety for a long time, allowing them to grow and implode. I rang the charity and they were very understanding.

We knew that Holly was never ours, and by this time the children had tired of sharing their dad and increasingly mad mother with a highly animated pet. And so, two days after Christmas we took her to another trainer. After all the stress it was with some relief that I passed her on, but poor old LSB had tears in his eyes. But with her departure home-life calmed down and with that so did my nerves.

So what did I take away from my attempt at giving? The most salient lesson was that the tiny eco-system of my mind requires balance: tip the see-saw too much any direction and turmoil ensues. Keeping centred is essential to my well-being. Lesson two; while I like dogs, in truth I’m more of a cat person. And three, that LSB one, well he’s a keeper.




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