It occurs to me that the relationship I have with my dog, Bella, is akin to the faintly exasperated affection of a too-long-married couple. Frequently, she regards me with a disdain more appropriate to on-the-turn milk. For much of the day, she appears indifferent to my existence, her interest in me being chiefly a by-product of breakfast and dinnertime, or a need to empty her bladder. Our evenings are a mildly cantankerous contest for supremacy on the sofa, her arsenal of bony leg-pokes and pungent farts pitted against my increasingly irritable sighs, shuffles, and muttered curses. She snores like a donkey, switches allegiance in a blink to anyone who will feed her and/or rub her belly, and only ever has a wash under duress.
I’m not one of those owners who finds all their dog’s foibles charming. I mean, she can be really bloody annoying, can Bella. On walks, her frenzied purloining of dog poop and other dubious products of nature’s pantry, and her insistence that she must walk on the inside of the pavement in order to pursue this unsavoury pastime (even if that means tripping me head-first over her lead) send me into an impotent rage. Like a kettle on a stove, I boil and splutter. I remonstrate and wag my finger. I beseech. She chomps down on another pile of excrement.
At home, however, she is the most equable companion. Surround her with soft furnishings and she’s happy. As fish are in water and snails in their shells, so Bella is on the sofa. Her mastery of this natural habitat is absolute. Whether on her back or on her belly, poised Sphinx-like along the backrest or head hanging over the armrest, propped up à la meerkat or draped across a lap – she can sleep in any position. Her genius for considered cushion placement is startling, considering her lack of opposable thumbs. Gravity is her sole adversary, its force repeatedly parting her from the sofa as she snooze-slides off her fleece blanket.
Because she is a dog, which of course is god written backwards, I am only too willing to devote myself to her service. And grovelingly so. In an affliction that I suspect (nay, hope) is not unique to me among pet worshippers, I am incapable of talking to her in my normal voice. ‘This’ becomes ‘dish,’ that becomes ‘dat,’ ‘Bella’ becomes ‘bootiful baby girl,’ ‘piglet’ or ‘Bubba G’ at best, ‘shmookyshmookyschmoodles’ at worst. I sometimes suspect she thinks I am an idiot.
She came to us as a rescued stray, a feral bundle of bewildered energy. It took many months for her eyes to arrive in the space we were offering her as a home; in those early days, the dog that is Bella was far away, back in her unknowable past of unbelonging. A certain melancholy still inhabits her and, I confess, draws me to her. We often joke that Bella has no sense of humour in the way some dogs do. Frivolity is beneath her. This sadness seems, to me, older than Bella. Perhaps she is an old soul; I know for certain that she is my canine soulmate.
At the risk of anthropomorphising her, I recognise many traits that we have in common, Bella & I. Profound though her attachments are, she is not given to bouts of overt affection or undignified excitement. She seems pensive and introspective. She can be stubborn, not inclined to compliance unless there is a tangible benefit such as biscuits. She is a home bird, a little lazy, does not need much stimulation in order to be content. She has an air of being in her own world much of the time. Her belly wobbles a little. She loves dinner and walks. She drools when people are eating Pringles. She loves to read (OK, I made that last one up, but she definitely would if she could). All these traits only consolidate my adoration of her.
I love her too for her dark and sorrowful eyes, for the way the tip of her tongue protrudes goofily from her mouth while she sleeps; for her silken brindled coat and the delightful white socks on her front paws; for the enchanting sound of those paws tapping along the pavements, for her scent of biscuits and pepper, her astonishing DNA that gifted her Dalmation spots beneath her chin and a bird-shaped blaze on her chest. I love the warmth of her, the solidity of her. I love her DOG-ness.
However tired I am, no matter how loudly my head is clattering with the junk of everyday life, there is a stillness about Bella that draws me back to myself, back to that miraculous simplicity that underpins all things.
For all these reasons, to Bella I gladly give, give, and give again. Except when, as is her (undoubtedly malicious) habit, she asks to go out in the garden just as I have sat down after a busy day and two hours of meal-prepping, tidying, dishwashing and list-ticking. If it is true that the average dog has a vocabulary of 165 words, then one of Bella’s must surely be ‘fucksake’.
This is Bella. Just like your dog, she’s the very best dog in the world.