Not long after my appendix operation, it had been agreed, after much pestering, that I could have my own dog. There had been a few predecessor pets in our flat. The first was a goldfish which arrived home inside his plastic carry bag. My father and I returned from a fairground trip and I proudly presented my trophy to my long-suffering mother. Having no glass fishbowl, his temporary home became a well-used pyrex dish. I think the series of rapid transitions he underwent was more than the little creature could cope with. A few mornings later he was discovered on the living room carpet following a desperate leap for freedom during the night.
My friend Gwen had a guinea pig called Gregory who did squeak quite a lot but who was generally a really amiable creature. Gwen’s family had a warm shed for his hutch and our balcony would have been far too cold. It was decided that a hamster, being smaller and quieter would be better. My first furry arrived as my fifth birthday present in his own small cage complete with feeding bowls and a squeaky exercise wheel. This particular example of hamster-kind looked as adorably cuddly as any child could wish. Unfortunately, his appearance belied his solitary life requirements. During the night he would try to cope with his hatred of the human species by running for hours in his squeaky treadmill wheel. In daylight hours he regarded any affectionate attention as an unwelcome intrusion into his personal space and to make this clear, would use his razor-like fangs to draw blood. He was also a master escapologist, appearing almost boneless as he flattened himself to squeeze through tiny spaces. On one occasion he disappeared for several days. He had secretly decided to move in with the Webb family who lived in flat two. Mr Webb had studied mathematics at Cambridge so perhaps he considered the family more appropriate to his requirements. The escapologist surfaced in the bathroom of flat two and Mr Webb discovered the intruder whilst comfortably enthroned. He and the hamster stared at each other and after an awkward pause, whilst each decided on the appropriate course of action, the hamster turned tail and vanished through a minute crack in the skirting board. It was the last sighting and an unlamented loss. What I really wanted was a dog and everybody knew that the place to buy puppies was Tib Street in Manchester.
It was a bleak wintry afternoon when My dad and I took the bus to the centre of town to choose a puppy, but Manchester always seemed dark no matter what time of year. Tall, blackened buildings loomed everywhere. Many of Manchester’s enormous gothic masterpieces had survived six years of warfare but proved defenceless against the sooty emissions from coal-powered factories, trains and homes. Tib Street’s shops were similarly dark Victorian relics. Several stories of murky upper floors overhung the grubby, puppy and kitten filled shop windows at ground level.
There was no way of telling what size or shape the little creatures on display would become or what their temperament would be, so buyers chose by instinct, and by price. Bitches were more expensive than dogs. New owners often compensated for their pet’s lack of pedigree with an ennobling name. The back streets of Manchester were filled with wiry brown mutts called ‘Prince’ or ‘Duke’. Our new dog was christened Pip. We brought him home on the bus, tucked inside my father's heavy winter coat. Waiting for him in the kitchen was his very own cardboard box complete with my old baby blanket and some old saucers for his food. He seemed hungry when he arrived so my mother fed him some leftover hotpot which he gobbled down and then threw up here and there.
Pip started life as a small fluffy puppy but rapidly grew into something resembling an unkempt sheepdog. He was my much loved and constant companion, but I can see now that an oversized bundle of energy and affection like Pip would never find the same place in my parent’s hearts. Like all puppies, Pip needed to chew. Unfortunately, his preference was for library books and shoes which did nothing for his popularity. In wet weather, he would dash into the flat, vigorously shake mud and water over a surprising radius and then look for a comfortable spot to snooze - rarely his box. The smell of wet dog would slowly spread through the flat. That wasn’t as bad as the winter days when I would compete with his motionless bulk for a space as near the coal fire as possible. Pip was oblivious to the steam that rose from his overheating pelt as the air filled with the aroma of wet, singed fur. Pip’s method for achieving fireside comfort was to select a suitable spot, plant his rear firmly and then slump sideways, heedless of any obstacles. Several times during these fireside manoeuvres he knocked over a clothes horse full of clean washing and was exiled to the kitchen. Luckily the fireguard prevented a real disaster. He was so big and ungainly that would occasionally knock me flying too. My mother and I once spent a Saturday afternoon at Stockport Infirmary waiting for an x-ray of my wrist. Sadly, I had a sprain so I didn’t qualify for one of those enviable plaster casts that my friends could have written and drawn on.
In his previous life Pip had obviously been a detective because as soon as he was able, he took to following people. He used to escape, follow me to school regularly and get me into terrible trouble. He would run riot in the playground to the delight of the boys who would wind him up to a barking frenzy. Then an annoyed teacher would present me with a school skipping rope for a lead and tell me to take him home. One morning he got on the bus with my dad who pretended not to know him. Because nobody would confess ownership the conductor threw Pip off the bus a few stops down the road and he found his own way home. He was quite well known locally and people were always returning him, but inevitably one day he wandered too far or too close to the cars and never came home. I was wretched but I’m fairly sure my parents were just relieved.
My mother said the answer to my abject misery was to buy a female dog. She said they didn’t wander and she was right. Polly never got lost and stayed with us until she died, long after I was married. The one thing my mum didn’t take into account, though, was that fertile female dogs need careful supervision. Polly had at least three litters of puppies that I can remember. She gave birth to the first of these early one Saturday morning, underneath my parent’s bed. At first, the sleepy pair couldn’t understand why the dog seemed to be trying to lift them out of bed. As soon as my mother realised what was happening she woke me so that I could watch. As each one appeared Polly would lick the puppy clean and try to settle it with its siblings. The final count was six. We moved mother and babies through to the kitchen and onto a softer bed made from some old utility marked blankets. Gradually the mewing noises stopped as the exhausted little creatures and their mother fell asleep. I examined them carefully. All six were different – an assortment of browns, plain and patterned but all with paw pads like raspberries and tightly shut eyes. Now my home had seven dogs. I needed to get dressed and share the good news.
In the weeks that followed my friends and I watched the puppies as their eyes opened, as they learned to walk and to feed and drink (messy business) and as they acquired characters. We spent many happy days playing with them, in our kitchen and later in the garden. Some were given away to local families who called when word got around that there were puppies to be had. I would always have Polly, but I was really sorry to see the puppies go; the flat grew quieter and emptier as they left one by one. My mother’s happiest moment was putting the last few in a large box when they were eight weeks old and taking them on the bus to Tib Street. It was a sort of recycling I suppose.