When our daughters were roughly kindergarten age, they began to lobby aggressively for a puppy.
“You are preaching to the choir,” I told them. “Go work on your father.”
This they dutifully did – he caved in about five minutes, and next thing we knew, we were driving out to a breeder in the country to pick up our very own Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy.
“I’ve named her Molly after Charles the Second’s mistress, Moll Davis,” the breeder announced. “I’ve named all the male puppies after Charles the Second’s bastard sons and all the bitches after his mistresses.” No attempt was made to temper this information for youthful ears; hence a fair bit of explaining was required on the way home. Also a fair bit of making things up - I knew next to nothing about Charles II.
“We don’t have to call her Molly,” I said to the girls. “We can choose our own name.” But the girls decided that the name Molly suited her, so Molly she remained.
Molly was twelve weeks old when we got her, and the last of the litter to be sold. Her puppyhood lasted for approximately ten minutes, after which she transitioned seamlessly into a comfortable and largely sedentary middle-age. Forced outside for her morning ablutions, she would recoil in dismay as her paws alighted on the damp grass. She eschewed pastimes such as chasing balls or sticks; other dogs held no interest for her. She had one trick, a stiff-limbed “High Five,” only ever attempted if conditions were exactly right – i.e. we were having roast chicken for dinner. Roast chicken was her favourite thing in the world – she would high-five away like the entire Los Angeles Dodgers if it earned her a morsel. Try to get her to do it in any other culinary circumstances and you were met with stony indifference.
She had several other unusual idiosyncrasies. After a particularly delicious dinner (i.e.roast chicken), she liked to hurry excitedly back into the living room and give expression to her sense of well-being by humping her stuffed toy, Pooky. If dinner was just the usual boring old dog food, which was most nights, Pooky could breathe easy. Thus the expression “hump-worthy”, used to denote an extremely delicious meal, moved into the family lexicon. You can imagine how exciting roast chicken nights were in our household, what with all the high-fiving and the humping.
Our next-door neighbours had a little Chihuahua-Pomeranian named Olly, who would regularly visit us via a hole in the fence. Owing to a dicky heart, Olly was not able to be desexed and every morning he would hurry over and tap at the back door, front paws up on the glass, sporting a small pink erection and a desperate expression. Molly would lift her head, gaze at him balefully a moment, and then hunker down a little lower in her bed in the hope that he would go away. He wouldn’t. So after a good ten minutes of Olly tapping away and us trying to eat our breakfast with gaze averted from the small pink erection, Molly would finally heave herself up and go out and do what she could by way of servicing him. Not a straightforward transaction by any means; Olly was a plucky little fellow but a good deal shorter than her, nor did Molly ever show much appreciation of his efforts. Nevertheless, undaunted, as soon as our neighbours got home from work in the evenings and let him out, he would rush through the hole in the fence, spend ten minutes or so chasing Molly around attempting to hump her, then finish off her dinner and do a poo on our lawn before heading straight back home again. I see now that it was a very dysfunctional relationship; he was like the worst boyfriend ever. Yet when our neighbour got married, we dressed Olly up in a black cummerbund and bow-tie and Molly in a bridal veil and took a series of wedding photos for our neighbour’s amusement. Both dogs sport the glazed expressions you see in wedding portraits sometimes, when the bride and groom are beginning to realise they’ve made a terrible mistake. Unhappily, our neighbour’s marriage didn’t last either: she moved away and Olly moved with her. We weren’t altogether sorry to see Olly go: he had a bad habit of stealing underwear from the dirty washing pile on the laundry floor and ferrying it directly back to his lair. Whereupon our neighbour would gingerly place said items in a plastic bag and leave them hanging on the fence for us to retrieve, in mortification, later on.
Surprisingly for a dog with such a sweet little snout, Molly snored like a drunken sailor – I would often find myself on the phone having to explain that it was our small spaniel producing these thunderous snores, lest the caller think it was my no-good layabout husband passed out drunk in the middle of the day. One night when the police came to our house in the early hours after someone threw a lump of concrete through our window (it wasn’t personal, it was a neighbourhood thing), they were startled by the stertorous log-sawing issuing from the next room; Molly had slept through the entire thing, smashing glass and all.
At some point – and here it starts to get a little weird - Molly began to distinguish herself from other dogs by developing a number of catchphrases. Like most catchphrases, they don’t look much written down – it was all in the delivery and timing – but suffice to say that Molly began to talk, mostly within the privacy of our own home and only to immediate family members. In conversation, she was a cross between a grumpy old dowager and an excitable six-year-old girl: she spoke with a plum in her mouth and a variety of speech impediments. Often, she deliberately mispronounced words (“adorabubble”) in a shameless attempt to appear more, well, adorabubble. Nor was she always entirely truthful: when trying to entice the girls to the park, she would frequently claim to have seen Johnny Depp down there, giving away solid gold mobile phones. (This was back in the day when Johnny Depp was a somewhat more wholesome figure, beloved by tweenies.)
She composed many songs, often about bones, but more often rousing cheer songs about herself (“Hooray for Molly!”). One day, in an apparent bid to appeal to the younger demographic, she decided that from hereon she would be referred to as Da Mozz; further, she insisted that our cat, Poppy, be henceforth referred to as Da Pozz. After expressing initial enthusiasm for the idea, however, Da Pozz decided that she wished to revert to her real name. This caused some tension in the household: Da Mozz felt that Da Pozz had let the side down rather badly.
On the walks to school in the morning, Molly would be blathering away or singing one of her odes to bones when suddenly the girls would silence her with a sharp “Sssshh!” We were about to bump into some friends from school – Molly was forbidden from speaking in public. Having a dog that talked was our family secret, one that we were all a teeny bit embarrassed about. Of course, it was me doing her voice – I have long done animal voices; our axolotls also talked, phoning in from the back pond, and Poppy at one point was controversially appropriating Molly’s catchphrases. But Molly’s voice was the one I was most proud of, the most complex, the most detailed, the most idiosyncratic. Her point of view on matters became second nature to me: I began almost to feel that I was channelling her - in fact I frequently found myself having conversations with Molly even when I was home alone. Clearly, I needed to get out more or, as my husband pointed out, get a paying job.
What joy that little dog brought us – what pleasures, what jokes, what nonsense! Molly walked the children to school in the morning and met them at the school gate in the afternoon until the sad day came when they decided they no longer needed an escort, whereupon she kept a daily vigil for them from three o’clock onwards, a forlorn figure at the front door. She came along on all the family holidays; she learned to boogie board and ride in billy-carts; she valiantly attempted to rescue us whenever we went swimming, provided the waves breaking on the shore were no more than six inches high. She was a kindly hostess at all the girls’ birthday parties, where she was lovingly plied with sausage rolls and fairy bread. She especially loved sleepovers, where she’d bunk in with all the kids, occasionally spoiling the fun by baring her teeth and snarling if anyone tried to squeeze her off the fold-out bed. She saw the girls through primary school and the more challenging times of high school, providing comic relief when the family was at loggerheads, or a sympathetic snout nudging someone’s leg, worried about their tears. She died at the age of fourteen by which time the girls had started university; she is buried under the frangipani tree in our back yard.
How much richer our lives are made by the animals we share them with. Even now as I write, two small dogs are rumbling in the back yard, growling and barking as they play together, the wild August winds ruffling their fur. Poppy (still with us) is asleep by the fire – at four o’clock, she will rouse herself for dinner. The animals will all be fed, the dogs will go to the park to chase a ball and scrounge titbits. Poppy will resume her position by the fire. A pair of mynah birds, a currawong and a butcher bird will descend at intervals to finish off the cat food. The girls are grown; the frangipani is bare of leaves, but soon the first green shoots will begin to reveal themselves.