I met Pat and Lily, as I have met many people in my area since I moved here six years ago, in the park where we both walk our dogs.
I know I am not the only one in that park – or many a dog park for that matter – who can sometimes chat to someone pretty much everyday for a while, know where they work, how their home life is doing, share concerns they have about their own life of their dog’s, but not actually know their name. It is not that we are being secretive, it is more that a dog park is an odd place to introduce oneself by name. You tend to meet other people through their dogs – whose names you will certainly know – and it is not until someone who is a mutual acquaintance refers to them by name that the knowledge is shared. I have actually had people try to introduce themselves to me and honestly I am trying to think of their names now and I just can’t – although I know they work in health care, have one son, drive a Volvo, have a fox terrier and her name is Scarlett.
With Pat and Lily the job was far easier. They are two ladies, both amply proportioned, each sliding gracefully and cheerfully into their seventh decade. I first met them and Ollie, their golden cocker spaniel, when I was new to the area.
They had recently had to say goodbye to Timmy, Ollie’s brother from the same litter, and it was clear that Ollie would not be too long in joining him. He was aged, blind, largely deaf, but happy to wander around and sniff a few leaves of a morning. He was content and in no pain, just very old and very loved.
They used to park their car at the top of the park and amble out, carrying Ollie and putting him gently on the grass under a favourite tree. They would progress slowly, from bench to bench, with the rest in between as much for them as the dog. Of the two, Pat seemed the slightly fitter, ‘I am a cyclist,’ she declared once during a conversation and I had visions of her generous form perched atop a racing bike, head with its short cropped hair perched just above the bars as she sped along the river.
The beauty of meeting them together is that I quickly learned their names as they referred to eachother constantly in conversation. In return, I tried to drop in references to mine by way of indirect introduction but it wasn’t easy. I needn’t have bothered because when all else failed, you could always rely on Frank.
Frank is a man who walks his dog around seven times a day. He makes it is point to know everyone – and because we all know this, if you really need a name all you do is provide him with a brief description of the person and the name and breed of dog and he provides it. Clearly they had sought his services because they very soon were addressing me by name too.
Sadly, it was not too long after I first met them that old age caught up with Ollie and he went to join his brother in the great sky kennel. I thought that would be the last I saw of ‘the ladies’ as I had started referring to them – so rare was it ever to see one without the other – for a while, but I was proved wrong.
Despite the lack of dog, the routine of coming for a morning constitutional had become so much part of their day that they continued to appear every morning, and tour the perimeter, taking rest stops at each bench. They had both been adamant that it would be while before they could bring themselves to get another dog, but still loved coming down and saying hello to all the regulars. A few months later, they appeared with an enormous Labrador on a lead and I thought perhaps they had changed their mind, but it turned out that they were just dog sitting for a friend.
‘Wow!’ I exclaimed on meeting the dog, ‘He is quite a big boy, isn’t he?’
‘He does love his food, ‘ agreed Pat.
‘It’s the breed, isn’t it?’ I sympathized, ‘Labradors do love a snack.’
‘I think I must be part Labrador, ‘ mused Lily.
They remained dogless for sometime – but then one day appeared with a black and white spaniel, a mature dog.
‘Dog sitting again?’ I asked.
‘Er, actually no,’ said Pat, ‘Did you see the news last night?’
‘Never watch it,’ I confessed, ‘Not since 9/11. It just depresses the hell out of me.’
‘Well,’ said Lily, ‘ They have a segment at the end, just after the weather, and they feature a dog up for adoption. This is Nic. His owner is quite old and has had to move into supported accommodation where they don’t allow dogs. He is a hero. The house was once on fire and he woke his owner up and saved his life. As soon as we saw him, we knew.’
‘Crikey,’ I said, ‘I’ll bet there were a few people wanting to take him with a story like that.’
‘Yes,’ they agreed, ‘but we knew. We just knew he belonged to us.’
And was my privilege to watch the relationship of trust between these kind ladies and their newly adopted family member grow over the weeks and months. Bringing him in the car, walking him at first on the lead only and then off lead, playing a game where Lily would sit on a bench with Nic beside her while Pat walked out to about twenty feet, then call him so he could come first to her for a treat, then back to Lily for another. He has not saved anyone from any fires recently, but he has found a new home with people who could not love him more. He is such a gentleman and so protective of his new family that I never call him Nic, always Mr Nic.
Just before Xmas, I saw Pat walking the dog and for the first time, she was without Lily. It turned out that Lily had been taken ill and was in hospital. She was not in immediate danger, but was very weak with unstable blood pressure and no matter how many tests they ran, no one seemed to be able to come up with a conclusive diagnosis. It was obviously a tough time for them both and Nic was missed her dreadfully for the weeks she was away, so it was nice to see them all together once again this morning, gradually building up to the old routine. For about a year now, the ladies have been using cross-country walking sticks to help them get around the park – and of course these have been very handy since Lily got out of hospital as her recovery has been painfully slow.
As I approached them, Mr Nic came up to greet me and Lucy left my side to jump up on the bench beside Lily and say hello.
‘How is your leg?’ enquired Pat. I had seen them since the knee operation but they knew I had been told it wouldn’t be an instant fix.
‘Oh getting there,’ I replied, trying and failing to sound good-natured. Actually my leg was particularly painful this morning and I was not sure why.
‘Your limp seems a bit worse today,’ observed Lily, ‘Did they not give you crutches or anything?’
‘Nup,’ I said, ‘No rehab, no crutches. Actually, I think the plan is that getting around without crutches IS the rehab.’
Then jokingly I said, ‘I should get a pair of walking sticks like you have! Where did you get them, the hiking shop?’
‘No!’ They shrieked, ‘They are about two hundred dollars there. We got these, [pause] off The Internet. Thirty bucks!’
Then suddenly Lily was struck with an idea, ‘You should take Pat’s stick, it will help you. Goodness knows what you are doing to your back!’
‘Oh absolutely not, ‘ I laughed – I mean these ladies were each decades older than me, one of them recently discharged from a long stay in hospital. There was no way I was going to take one of their walking sticks.
But I had reckoned without their steely generosity. Try as I might, they insisted on me trying it out for a few days – they had a spare in the car that they never used, it would give my leg a rest, my back would be broken in two if I carried on limping the way I was. Before I knew it, I had accepted the loan and they were saying goodbye, heading towards the car with Mr Nic as I stood, lead in one hand, still trying to give it back.
And so to cut a long story short that is the reason, if you saw me this morning, that I was limping around the park with a dog on a lead in one hand and a walking stick in the other.