My mother always said she didn’t like Dobermanns because she couldn’t read the expressions on their faces. Not having known a Dobermann up close and personal, I accepted her reasoning and thought it wasn’t a breed I wanted to get to know. Fast forward to me as a woman in her mid-thirties being thrown around a wintry North Sea on a sand dredger. Coming off watch, I call home.
‘Guess what?’ asks my sister, St Francis.
‘We’ve got a new dog! It’s a rescue dog and it’s a Dobermann. We’ve called him Alfie.’
‘You’ve got a WHAT?’
I expressed my horror. My niece, Medusa was a very small person back then and my nephew, Semtex was a baby. How could my sister bring one of those dogs into her home? Her children’s home? My disapproval lasted the three weeks of my trip away. It lasted right up until St F and her children’s father arrived to pick me up at the station.
‘Come and meet Alfie,’ they chorused, leading me to the back of the car.
They threw open the boot and a huge dark shape launched itself toward me. Slobbering tongue, ginger eyebrows, big, floppy ears – I was sold in less than fifteen seconds.
Despite his being beaten and severely traumatised in the first two years of his life, St F was able to teach Alfie how to play and she calmed many of his neurotic tendencies. He caused numberless problems but aggression wasn’t ever an issue with him. He was one of the universe’s gentlemen. Affectionate, patient, polite, he was all of that and much, much more.
He stole chocolate cake. He allowed Medusa to put flashing reindeer antlers on him at Christmas. He regularly and spectacularly knocked people off their feet by running full tilt at them and forgetting to stop or swerve at the last minute. And once, my sister found that she didn’t have change for the parking meter so she ran across to the nearest shop. On returning to her car she found an angry mob surrounding it. Coming closer she saw above them that Alfie had got half way out of the partly open sunroof before getting stuck. Except for his frantic barking, he resembled a tank commander. Much tutting and shaking of heads followed as St F tried to explain that she hadn’t abandoned her dog, she’d just gone for change. No one was listening though. It’s one thing to work up the courage to smash a car window and drag an overheated doggie to safety but, it’s quite another to have one tunneling through the roof to get out. Crisis averted, the crowd dispersed leaving St F unwedge her dog on her own.
I learned to love Dobermanns. And the fantastic people who jumped out in front of us and said how they’d had one and they were the best dogs ever. The enthusiasm that Doby owners show when meeting another Doby is mind-boggling. One summer’s day, down by the beach, a young German was sitting on a wall eating an ice-cream. On our approach, he leapt up and told St F and me that he had a Dobermann at home and could he please give Alfie the rest of his ice-cream. You can guess what Alfie’s answer was.
Of course he got his ice-cream. He earned it. By being the nicest dog you could ever meet (unless you’re a waterfowl …) and by being the dog that taught us to love Dobermanns. And by being the dog that finally taught me that’s OK to love something. I did love him. I still do and always will.
A year or so after I moved away up North, Alfie went to live with friends of ours. A large family with lots of bustle to keep Alfie occupied and with someone special who could spend time with him. St F, Medusa and Semtex were able to see the dog regularly and they saw how attached he became to his new guardian,Tony. Then Tony and his family moved some miles away and our only sightings of Alfie since then have been the photos that Tony and his wife have shown us.
Very kindly, Alfie’s family kept us in the loop about his adventures and misdeeds. Very kindly they told us about Alfie’s last adventure on New Year’s Eve. Fourteen is a good age for a Doby and even heroes have to go sometime. Cuddled up in the arms of the man he loved most in the world, Alfie drifted away from us all and breathed his last. I cannot think of a more beautiful way to bid goodbye to a loved one but also, it must have been intensely painful. My heart goes out to Alfie’s family but I envy them the years they had with him. I envy their being there at the end but not in a jealous way. I am truly glad that he went with them because they gave him what he most needed – time, care and lots and lots of love. Also, I’m glad I didn’t have to dig that hole! With that in mind, I hope Eric is immortal!
If Alfie were ever to have a headstone, or memorial, then my version would say ‘Int Life Brilliant?’ because, just like ‘Brilliant’ in The Fast Show, Alfie loved life. Let off his lead on the beach he would tear around in circles, knocking people over at every turn, and his facial expression (his apparently unreadable facial expression) would read, ‘Int sand brilliant?’ Lead him to the sea and his face said, ‘Int water brilliant? And er, cold. Can I go back now?’
Take him out into the fields and you could see him thinking, ‘Int grass brilliant?’
Maybe, somewhere out there, Alfie is tearing around an open space and thinking to himself, ‘Int death brilliant?’
I do hope so.