Monday, 27 October 2014

A shaggy dog story.

If you look hard enough, wherever you may find yourself, you'll find great beauty. Even a derelict mill, like the ones that surrounded my home for several years in the late 70's and early 80's, will contain an oasis of beauty somewhere. Moss growing on brickwork, weeds and wildflowers poking through broken concrete floors, beams of sunlight cutting through the gloom, all little things and all, if you take the time to take a good look, beautiful.

When I was very young I'd found myself, in the summer holidays, without my best friends. One was on a foreign holiday, one was away at his grandparent's house and one was grounded.

It didn't matter a jot.

Our family had a dog, a big, shaggy mongrel by the name of Toby. The neighbours were terrified of Toby, he was a fierce looking beast, but underneath the jet black fur and behind the wicked looking teeth lay one of the friendliest and most loyal dogs you could ever imagine.

Finding myself friendless for a day or two I decided that I was going to go for a little adventure. Just Toby, a satchel full of jam-butties and myself. We set off early to explore the expansive area of waste ground that lay behind my father's first pub in Rochdale. A seven year old boy and an overly protective canine companion on a whirlwind adventure is, in itself, a beautiful thing to behold.

Toby and I spent a little time on the run from the police. Then we had a gunfight with some red Indians, followed by a a flight in a spaceship that looked suspiciously like a burnt out Ford Cortina and finally an epic battle with gang of bigger boys that had thrown a brick at me before feeling the wrath of Toby. One of the bigger boys ended up cornered by my snarling best friend and didn't dare fight back as the sobbing, snotty, seven year old me punched and kicked and bit the bastard, and all before ten a.m.

There was a little stream that ran through the waste ground. A pipe jutted from the bank, allowing the bath water and waste from the kitchen sinks of the local residents to join this lazy trickle and be carried away toward the river Roch. In those days before automatic washing powder this meant that the air around the pipe was filled with greasy bubbles, a thousand globular, shimmering rainbows that drifted gently away on the breeze. I sat on this pipe to eat a butty, tearing off those evil crusts and sharing them with Toby, and I planned our next adventure as I enjoyed the little light show that the pollution had produced.

As I sat eating my pudding (that being the scab that I'd peeled from my knee) a creature approached. An alien creature, I was sure. Bigger than my hand, two pairs of wings, bulging eyes and six legs, it settled on the pipe between my knees and fixed me with an icy stare that chilled me to the bone.

I sat, transfixed, for a moment or two, part terrified and part mesmerised. The creatures body, bobbing gently on it's six, spindly legs, was long and shimmered like the bubbles that filled the air around me. Blues and greens that seemed to shine with a light of their own. Beautiful but scary all at the same time.

Toby didn't see it as beautiful, Toby saw it as prey. He launched himself at the creature, sending me slipping sideways from the concrete pipe and down the bank into the soapy water that flowed a few feet below. The creature took off, flying upwards like a helicopter and bobbing in the air a yard or so above the jaws of the beast before banking in the air and zooming away with Toby in hot pursuit.

I splashed along the stream behind Toby, soggy jam butty in hand, watching as the creature seemed to tease the dog, zooming and swooping, stopping dead in the air, darting left and right and occasionally skimming the water. Toby never stood a chance and, after a minute or two, lost interest. I didn't though.

As my dog sat in the shallow stream scratching his ear and licking his own testicles (the bloody show off) I slowly approached the creature, which had now settled on a stone. I knelt beside it and tried to take in as much detail as I could so I could describe it to my Grandfather later. He'd know what it was.

As I watched, and without warning, a bird swooped down. The creature had been faster than a dog but wasn't fast enough to escape this aerial assault. A flurry of feathers and it was over, the bird returning to the tree from which it had launched it's attack where it ate it's wriggly lunch.

On the stone on which the creature had taken it's last ever break, all that remained was a wing. Transparent and with a network of veins that looked a little like a spiders web, I picked it up and examined it closely, peering through it like a magnifying glass. I slipped it into my satchel and set off in search of a lion to hunt or villain to vanquish.

By the time I got home, exhausted and grubby, I'd forgotten all about the creature that had mesmerised me. When my Grandparents visited the following weekend I forgot to show it to my granddad. I remembered once he'd left. It didn't matter, I could ask him next weekend.

I never saw my Granddad again, he was by now dying of lung cancer and my parents had decided that my sister and I were too young to be involved. We weren't even allowed to go to the funeral. That was a mistake on the part of my parents but nothing more, just a mistake. I wish they'd let me say goodbye, but I can't blame them for making a poor decision during such a time.

I found the wing many months later. Still intact, it had lay in the little, leather pocket that I used to store my crayons and emergency fifty pence piece, forgotten and rotting. It crumbled in my fingers and blew away as I rushed home with it excitedly to ask my dad, who with the loss of his father-in-law had become my go-to guy, what it was. My father was big, strong, had street smarts and a wit as quick as the comedians we watched on the telly, but he was as thick as pig shit. I showed him the dust, attempting to rearrange it into the shape I remembered, and described the creature. By now, in my little head, it had been as big as a cat and had fangs that gnashed and eyes that swiveled on stalks.

"No idea, son. Why don't you ask your Gra...." He began. "Erm, I dunno, son. Sorry."

Next, I asked my teacher, Mr Winterbottom. 

Chilly-arse, as he was known, knew what it was from my description and showed me a picture in a big, colourful book on nature in the British Isles. It was a dragonfly. He was called away as he showed me the photographs, leaving me to read the book. There were a lot of big words that I had heard but never understood in the chapter, but I read it all anyway. I learned that a dragonfly has a very short life, sometimes measured in weeks and never lasting longer than six months. I wondered what was the point of a creature so magnificent being placed on this Earth to live such a short span. I wondered if the insect knew it was to die before ever seeing Christmas and I wondered if that made the creature sad.

As I grew older I saw dragonflies more and more often. They lost their mystery and wonder over the years and became, to me, something that could sting me and hurt me and was to be avoided. Then I took up fishing.

By now my mum and dad had been able to buy a much larger and more profitable pub in Weaste, Salford. There were no rivers or streams to fish in. The Manchester ship canal was, by then, a greasy, grey, poisonous stretch of unused infrastructure and so fishermen would use the well stocked ponds that were connected to some of the factories that still existed back then. There was one such pond that my friend Ralph used a lot and one day I went with him.

As I watched my float plop satisfyingly into the still water of the pond and I settled back into my deckchair a dragonfly appeared from the bushes to my right. Bright blue and green, just like the one Toby had chased through the suds and bubbles of that Rochdalian stream, I smiled and watched, transfixed, as it zipped and span, dived and twirled and skimmed the water around my line. I saw it climb high then whoosh back Earthward and feast upon the midges that swarmed around the reeds and bushes having a fine old time until, finally, it settled briefly on a sign that protruded from the water. The sign that bore the name of the business that inhabited the factory to which the pond belonged.


I immediately recalled the book Chilly-arse had shown me as a child. This coincidence brought with it a broader smile to my already happy face.

As I watched the creature moving with incredible speed and agility through the trees, reeds and bushes, feasting on the fauna, I imagined being able to fly in such a way, to perform those acrobatic aerial stunts and experience the world of the dragonfly from his perspective. I was disappointed that I'd never be able to do that. What fun they could have in the short window of existence they were blessed with. So much fun, constant fun, to enjoy before the day that, exhausted from teasing a savage dog, they settled on a stone and were swallowed by a swallow. A life spent rushing around eating, fornicating and flying. A few weeks, or maybe a few months, of fun. The dragonfly doesn't procrastinate. The dragonfly doesn't leave anything until tomorrow. It does as it wishes as soon as it wishes. A tiny lifespan into which it has to pack a lifetime's worth of enjoyment.

As epiphanies go, it was a belter. For the rest of that summer I lived my life like a dragonfly. I rose as early as I could and got myself out of my bedroom. If none of my friends were out and about it didn't matter. I'd jump on a bus and visit the city centre, walking back and smiling, stopping here and there to look at something interesting. I visited museums and art galleries, though I never told my friends for fear of being branded a "poof", and I learnt more in those few short weeks than I had throughout the whole of the previous school term.

My dragonfly attitude didn't last much beyond the start of my penultimate year of schooling. I soon found myself locked once again in my bedroom for hours on end chatting on my C.B. radio and banging away at the little, rubber keys on my Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It wouldn't matter though. In my teenage mind I had at least thirty years before I would be too old to have fun.

It's now thirty one years later. I've had fun, a lot of fun, but not the constant, frantic, real-life, living fun of the dragonfly. I really should've listened to myself. The only things I regret now are the things I never did.

I'd forgotten all about the epiphany that accompanied the fishing incident by the time I was in my late 20's. I'd slowed down and found myself recently divorced and working as a transport manager for a building firm in South Manchester. My routine consisted of working Monday to Saturday, picking up my sons for their overnight visit to my little house every other Saturday afternoon and getting pissed on the other weekends.

I drank a lot, but only to numb the pain of my worthless existence. 

Occasionally I would take my sons to visit their grandparents. They still ran pubs, though by now much nicer pubs than the backstreet locals I'd grown up in, and the boys loved it. My dad would spend most of the time we were there with the kids, taking them out and spoiling them rotten. He was a good man, as good at being a grandfather as he was at being a father, very good indeed. Finally, having worked every hour god sent to save enough money to buy a tatty, little boozer, then a tatty, big boozer which in turn was followed by a series of increasingly idyllic hostelries, he was offered what he described as his "dream". A lovely pub with low ceilings, a bowling green and beautiful surroundings.

He telephoned me the week before he was due to move in and, having not been able to get hold of me since getting his news, it was the first I'd heard. It was a lovely phone call and I was as happy for him as he was for himself. At last, still only fifty four years of age, he'd achieved everything he wanted and far more than he'd expected when he was my age. I had an overcoming urge to tell him how proud I was and how I loved him, that he was a bloody hero and a fantastic grandfather and his Ready Brek was always better than my mum's on those rare occasions as a child that he'd had to get my sister and I ready for school. (He always left little, dry, powdery lumps of oats in it because he couldn't be arsed stirring and he added so much sugar it was fucking crunchy. I still love it like that.)

But I couldn't get a word in.

I told him I'd be visiting him the weekend after he moved in, that I would bring the boys and that I was looking forward to it, then hung up. I hadn't said what I'd wanted to say, and now I realised that it was because I wanted to say it to his face. I thought I'd put my arm around his shoulder, because I never did that, tell him everything I wanted to tell him, kiss his bald head and then get pissed for free in his pub whilst my gran Kath, who was by now living with my parents, looked after my children upstairs. I rehearsed it in my head, smiling every time I did. I couldn't wait to see him.

He moved into his dream pub on the Friday and died on the Saturday.

I wish I'd been a dragonfly.

Whatever that thing is you just thought, do it and do it soon.



  1. I read every word. Loved every word. I'm so sorry for your loss. One of greatest gifts my parents ever gave me was the chance to say a proper goodbye to each of them. But now I have to go and tell each of my children that I love them.

  2. Oh my, I'm a wreck after reading that.. you had me hanging on every word. A beautiful (though sad) story, beautifully written. My own Dad is dying, will be soon, terminal Cancer..your story felt close to home. You write so beautifully, I felt as if I were right there with you and your dog on 'Dragon Fly' day.

    I'm so sorry that you never got a chance to say goodbye to you Dad (or your Granddad)

    Take care, Kimmie x

  3. It's hard to know how to handle death around children isn't it. My gran died of bowel cancer and we never went to her funeral either. A proper goodbye is really important.

  4. I enjoyed reading this. I almost didn't stick through until the end but I'm glad I did. I'm sorry about your loss but I do like how you turned it into a story and used it to convey your message.