Growing up, we always had dogs, but after heartbreak with a young Beagle and a bouncy Jack Russell who met his end under the wheels of a car whilst chasing a fox late one night, my mother decided: No more hounds.
I longed for another dog more than I longed for Donny Osmond to sing Puppy Love to me, and I campaigned vigorously for a canine to be reinstated.
Determined to prove that I was capable of being the sole carer (I ignored the fact that I was at school during the day – presumably my dog would posses an iron bladder, be capable of crossing its legs or using a flushing toilet), I ‘looked after’ a toy dog, putting it to bed, feeding it and so on. I even took it for walks.
I may have been desperate for a dog, but not so desperate that I risked getting my head kicked in by the local hard girl when she saw me with a stuffed toy on a lead, but this didn’t mean that whilst I was out and about I couldn’t ‘feel’ my dog with me. I’d walk along the road and he’d trot beside me. I’d stop whilst he cocked his leg and whisper “Good boy!” when we passed another dog without any snarling or snapping. It sounds funny now, but my imaginary dog was incredibly real to me. I could feel him tug at the lead or hang back when a bus rattled towards us. I knew when he was frightened or having fun. What’s more, my campaign worked: unable to live without a hound in the house, the parentals caved in and a new puppy arrived.
I tried something similar years later when I wanted a pony, but a teenager in jodhpurs and a riding hat careering around the garden whilst whinnying and neighing and slapping her thighs with a riding crop isn’t cute – it’s creepy – and I never got my pony.
Sometime after JS died, I was walking The Hound on Hampstead Heath when I inadvertently caught sight of my left arm and hand sticking out from my body, as if I was walking around holding hands with someone. It gave me a shock; I wondered how long I had been doing it. I carried on walking, and, after a while, slid my eyes to the left. There it was again, my arm outstretched, the fingers of my hand slightly curled, as if I was holding onto something – or someone. I reined my hand in, but again it drifted away from my body. I seemed to have no control over my limbs.
Perhaps I was suffering from anarchic hand syndrome? My husband and I once saw a programme about this condition and (rather meanly) practically wet ourselves watching perfectly normal people being unable to control their hand. We’d (OK, mainly me) sometimes act out anarchic hand syndrome, combining it with restless leg syndrome and finishing off this cruel little vignette with narcolepsy. One vivid memory of my husband is him sitting on the sofa crying with laughter watching a committee of narcoleptics trying to take meeting notes.
That day on The Heath, I gave up trying to control my left hand. I walked around holding thin air, and yet the air wasn’t thin: I could feel my husband’s hand in mine, I could feel it’s warmth and the roughness of his knuckles. His hand felt more familiar than my own.
Was it a sign? Was he walking beside me as I sobbed? I’d like to think so, but experience with my imaginary dog forty years before tells me otherwise. JS’s hand felt real to me, but so did the dog on the lead and unlike my husband, that dog never existed. What conjured up the dog was my imagination and my intense longing for him exist. I hardly need point out the parallels.
But there is a difference.
As a child I could will my dog to ‘exist’ on cue. Now, however much I long for JS to be here, however much I try to imagine him walking beside me, other than that one brief time on Hampstead Heath, my hand has never again reached out on its own.