Hey-hey-hey! I like it when the sun rises early and the day is bright and warm, long into the afternoon. The earth is happy in the sunshine. The breeze, my old friend, tickles and teases. Whoop whoop! My separateness calls to your separateness,
and together we chase after the One...
GLORIA I’m in the middle of a webinar in my new little studio office just beyond the kitchen – ‘Key Principles of Management Accounting’ – when I am distracted by some polite but persistent tapping on the big sliding window.
It’s Theo, my old college pal and now, dear Lord, my landscaper. I close my eyes for a second as the flat tones of the lecturer run on about controllable and uncontrollable costs, and pray to an unknown deity that when I open them again, Theo will not be there.
Never hire your friends to work for you. They may not mean to, but they take the piss. OK, so they offer you ‘mates’ rates’, but, as I’ve discovered the hard way, you have to make up the shortfall in Jaffa cakes, lunches, and silent fury.
Theo’s good at his work when he does it, to be fair, and for the first time my little back garden is actually starting to look like a garden, rather than a Council amenity in a jungle. Visitors no longer have to make polite noises about its ‘wonderful potential’ as they stare through the studio windows at a cramped vista of old furniture, ragged shrubbery, and bald patches of lawn. But.
Theo comes and goes when he pleases, he’s obsessed with his phone, and he wastes whole mornings going off to fetch tools and materials he was supposed to have brought with him. He is blissfully unconcerned about all the agreed timelines we’ve missed – he’s missed – and he has no concept of boundaries. No matter how often I hint to him about the course I’m doing – how it’s quite intense and full-on, and I really need to focus – he seems to think that I’m basically just sat in at home to make him a cuppa every five minutes and join him for a smoke and a natter whenever he decides to down tools.
Even the nattering is hard work. When he’s not sharing his latest horde of internet factoids for another exhausting Did you know…? session, Theo will be in need of some energetic moral support ahead of his next date or – all too often – a shoulder to cry on after the disaster of the previous one. I blame the app he’s using – it keeps throwing up men 20 years younger than him. And his vanity, of course: Theo’s pretty well preserved for his age, but, well, I’ve got a grown-up daughter – Gabby – who’s older than he looks in his profile pic.
‘Sorry to interrupt, Glor,’ says Theo, spade in hand. ‘But can you take a look at this?’
Oh God, I think. Another gentle but devastating knockback. ‘You’re a lovely guy but I just don’t think we really have enough in common to take this forward.’ More tea and sympathy required.
‘Oh OK,’ I say, not even bothering to hide my reluctance. ‘Shall we have a cuppa in a quarter of an hour, say?’
Theo is gently stabbing at the patio concrete with his blade.
‘Not tea,’ he says. ‘It’s something you need to come and see. In the garden.’
Oh God. I bet he’s put a spade through a pipe.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s a... He’s... Well, I think it’s him.’ Theo stops. ‘Oh God. Come and have a look for yourself.’
Something in his voice alarms me. I remember thinking: He? Who is he? I was watching one of those Scandi-noir shows the night before, and my first thought is that Theo has discovered a dead body, and it turns out to be a 30-year-old unsolved murder, and there’s only one woman in all of Brighton who can solve the crime. DCI Gloria Heaven. She’s a maverick but she gets the job done, and… Oh God, my garden’s going to be a major crime scene from now until Christmas! Theo won’t be able to do any work at all, and I bet he’s already smirking to himself at the thought of it.
Theo leads me the few short steps from my studio to the bottom of the garden, where he is supposed to be digging out the remains of the old rockery and preparing the ground for my little garden room. I’m spending the money from my divorce from Angel at last, doing the course I always wanted to do, extending the kitchen, tidying up the garden.
I cannot resist looking back up for a moment at my little terrace house and taking in its warm brick tones and the dappled magenta shades of the Boston Ivy that almost reaches up to my bedroom window sill. (Is all that ivy sound, structurally speaking? I’ve no idea. But I like it.) For so long, this place has felt like a holding position for me, a moment of temporary rest between proper destinations, like a bus terminal. Since the divorce it’s taken me years to mentally unpack my bags – my baggage – and really start to move in and move on. Brighton, place of becomings, as Theo likes to vape. Which, of course, is a very Theo thing to say.
Theo is now peering into a big hole just to the left of a pile of not-very-big ornamental boulders that he seems to have been digging out for several weeks now. I am about to say something gently sarcastic about his inability to get his rocks off, but there’s something about the way he nervously peeks over the edge of the hole, as if to check that its contents haven’t changed since he last looked, then takes a couple of steps back. It’s oddly deferential, like a pallbearer putting down his precious load and stepping away from the coffin. If he had a cap on, I can’t help feeling he would remove it at this point.
Gingerly I step forward. The hole is about two feet deep. At the bottom of it, I can see the tattered remains of a plastic bin bag. Through the tatters, I see something sticking out that looks sort of furry or bushy, almost knitted. For a moment, it looks like a paw. A teddy bear, I think. The thing is a sort of blacky-brown colour. Then I lean down further, and I gasp. Now I can see a furry back and stomach, and two more paws! The final third of the body is still covered by black polythene, but the woolly poodle coat is already unmistakable.
‘Oh my God,’ I say.
‘Only if you spell God backwards,’ he says, which is another very Theo thing to say. He gets like that when he doesn’t know what else to do.
Less than a week ago, I dropped a turkey carcass in the recycling bin. Stupidly I forgot to put the bin out to be collected the next day, and when I lifted the lid a few days later, the remains of the bird’s flesh were turning to a putrid, gelatinous paste and the bones were caving in on themselves. In the spring sunshine, little flies were buzzing around the body in scratchy, restless patterns that rose up angrily at my appearance, and gangs of maggots had moved in to do their thing. The stench of the seven-day-old turkey was like a physical assault on the nostrils, and so I steel myself now for the inevitable wave of nausea as I bend down and nervously stretch out my hand.
But there is no stench. Instead, there’s a sort of citrus musk that I don’t recognise – and I know a lot about perfumes, trust me – but which is really quite pleasant.
I move to pull back the plastic, but the last piece comes off in my hand, and the face is revealed in full.
It can’t be.
‘It’s a dog,’ I say.
‘It’s your dog,’ says Theo.
‘But it can’t be! That was… seven years ago.’
‘It is though, isn’t it?’ he persists. ‘It’s Boyzone.’
He is perfectly, uncannily intact, the expression settled into that warm almost-smile I find I know still so well. The gentle eyes closed, the lashes surprisingly long. That little scar on his nose where a cat once nipped him.
It is, without a shadow of a doubt, Boyzone. Our dear old labradoodle Boyzone, whom Angel and I bought as a pup 20-odd years ago, not long after we first moved in together. Boyzone, who died in his old age a few months after we separated for the last time as if the divorce was all too much, as if he just wanted some peace from a toxic situation that even his big selfless doggie heart couldn’t heal.
Our own dear Boyzone. Dead still, yet untouched by time or biology. Solid, substantial, almost warm to the touch, as if he’d been put in the ground half an hour ago. He is more like a lovingly stuffed replica than a rotting corpse, in fact; the more I look at him, the more I expect him to open his eyes, give that little hello! yelp of his, and start jumping up and down at my side, tail thrumming in an ecstasy of unconditional love. Seven years have passed, but here he is, as fresh as the day he died. And smelling rather better too – he was a flatulent old thing in his latter years.
I remember burying Boyzone with Theo. Boyzone had been staying with me at the time – I had accidental custody of him because Angel’s new girlfriend (now his second ex-wife) said that she was allergic to dogs. There was nothing Angel could say or do around that period which didn’t enrage me, but I remember being especially furious about this because Angel was always mad for animals. (More than for humans, perhaps.) Not surprising for a zoologist, I suppose, but it was Angel who pressured us into getting Boyzone in the first place (though of course I soon fell for him too), and it was Angel who always liked to say that he could never trust a person who didn’t like dogs.
Boyzone. Our baby boy Boyzone.
Yo-yo-yo! I lick the day, happy to live and not live. I am waiting again, just as we always do, hanging on every word for an invitation to respond. Love is our master, yay! We can only love, even when those we love seem not to love each other.
I come into the garden to find Mum and Theo bent over a hole. They are so wrapped up in whatever it is that they don’t even notice me peering over.
‘But… how?’ Theo is saying.
‘I have absolutely no idea,’ says Mum.
‘Well, I’m going to put it on the WhatsApp group,’ I say.
‘Hey! You frightened the life out of me!’ says Mum, startled. ‘Ooh, I think a ghost just walked over my grave.’
‘Surely his grave,’ says Theo, pointing at the hole. ‘And I think you mean a goose,’ says Theo, brandishing his Google.
‘Let’s not get into all that again,’ Mum and I say, almost as one. The man is a trivia obsessive.
Personally, I’m not given to superstition or over-thinking things, so when something doesn’t make sense to me, my impulse is always just to put the question out there.
The local WhatsApp group started as a little support network for vulnerable people during the pandemic, but it wasn’t long before the polite requests for emergency shopping gave way to offers of second-hand furniture, thinly-disguised ‘personal recommendations’ for chimney sweeps, and feng shui consultants, and rants about the local traffic calming scheme.
I think Mum felt a bit funny when she saw my message about Boyzone out there for all the world to see, and she probably wouldn’t have agreed to me sharing a pic if she’d known I’d taken one. But then, as she’d doubtless be the first to say, Boyzone was as much mine as hers and Dad’s.
Remember Boaty McBoatface? Well, when I was just four or five, Mum and Dad decided, in a fit of parental foolishness, that I could baptise our adorable little puppy. Whatever name I chose, that would be his name, they said – no ifs or buts. Which was how we ended up with Boyzone. It was a ridiculous name, and I don’t even really know why I insisted on it now, though I do remember being completely adamant at the time. (Mum still blames my keyworker at pre-school, who she says always used to wear a Ronan Keating T-shirt.)
Mum and Dad went back and forth about my choice, but in the end, Dad said that it was important to show me that a promise was a promise. (Which, given that Dad’s serial infidelities had probably already begun by this time, is pretty fecking ironic.) So Boyzone it was, even if, to start with, Mum and Dad had to keep explaining it to people, almost apologise for it. But you know how it is with names. Boyzone started to wear his like it had been made for him, and soon enough it was impossible to imagine that he could ever have been called anything else.
Oh! I long for you to call me, for the run and the dance and the play. All names are my name if it’s you who is calling. Come! Go! Fetch! You send me away, and I love you for it, because you want only to watch me return.
Gabby’s WhatsApp post received quite a bit of interest. Many of the responses were surprisingly sensible, and even the silly ones weren’t too silly. Our local joker Barry merely observed that this was clearly a case for the scientists, who would need to carry out a PET scan and lots of Lab tests. Which were very Barry sort of comments to make, and actually quite funny by his standards.
A few theories were kicked around – radiation, soil composition, sea air, a minor conspiracy about a switch of dogs. But several friends and neighbours also said how sorry they were about what had happened. As animal owners themselves, they couldn’t imagine what a shock it would be to come across your old friend like that and, as next-door-but-one Janice said, ‘have to mourn for your darling all over again, in a way’.
And that was it really, that was the worst thing. Non-animal people will never get this, but in terms of pure grief, saying goodbye to Boyzone was right up there with my divorce and my own Mum dying. Perhaps because they all happened about the same time, in 2013 – unlucky for some, and me and Gabby’s horrible anus, as we like to call it.
In my mind – in my heart – these sadnesses are all wrapped up in one messy tangle. But somehow, letting go of that silly little dog and pushing the earth down over his poor lifeless form was the moment I drew a line and began to move forwards. It’s taken me years to get back on my feet, but that was the moment.
Perhaps we can’t connect with animals in all the ways that we can with humans, but then animals can bring us something that humans can’t. They can never hurt us, for one thing, except by their own pain and death, which only hurts them more.
‘Mum,’ says Gabby, right on cue, and by the tone in her voice I know she is preparing me for something I won’t want to hear. ‘I’ve got Dad on the phone.’
‘Oh, for god’s sake, Gabriella.’
‘He’s got a right to know.’
I go to the bottom of the stairs, where the landline sits on the little table, and I’m just about to pick up the receiver when the doorbell goes.
‘Hi,’ I say to the phone flatly, opening the door with my free hand. And then: ‘Hang on, I’ll call you back.’
I’m not trying to annoy Angel on purpose, though of course, it’s always a temptation. It’s just that, on opening the door, I find Senora Buena Muerte kneeling on my welcome mat. Next to her, she has placed a little coffee jar, from which the hot, sickly aroma of half-a-dozen smoking sticks of incense swirls up to greet me. A thick candle with a deep cross carved into it has been perched on my hedgehog shoe-brush, and an ornate black rosary swings from liverish hands that are tightly clasped in prayer. I should perhaps also mention that Senora Buena Muerte is swathed in one of those fine black-lace prayer shawls, and her bulbous lips chatter soundlessly as she works her way through the Decades.
All this, as you can imagine, is more than I can easily explain to Angel.
Senora Buena Muerte is a Catholic of the old school; and also, possibly, a tiny bit mad. For years now her hunched, shuffling frame has been a fixture in our streets, as she goes knocking on doors for a variety of causes, collecting for Christian Aid or distributing crosses on Palm Sunday, or circulating pamphlets about a miraculous new healing statue in the Philippines. One that drips tears of blood.
She is always accompanied by her little Jack Russell, Benito, a weary old-timer who was a good friend of Boyzone back in the day. Left to its own devices, Senora’s face tends to wear an expression of otherworldly piety, as if she is deep in contemplation of the Sorrowful Mysteries – until you say hello, when at once her lovely smile, coated always in a thick, deep shade of burgundy lippy, appears. But although everyone recognises her, no one really seems to know her. I don’t know of anyone in the street who’s ever been inside her house, for example.
‘El cano,’ she says, and crosses herself. It’s been a good many years since I was in a church, but these habits die hard, and I am always tempted to return the gesture. There’s always been something reassuring to me about making the Sign of the Cross.
‘Boyzone? I know! It’s so sad and strange. And thank you, Senora.’ I don’t really need this whole circus camped out on my doorstep, but no one can say she hasn’t made an effort. Behind her, various locals survey the scene placidly as they walk past. A few wave or smile at the makeshift shrine on my doorstep, but no one bats an eyelid, which is of course a very Brighton sort of reaction.
‘Si, El Boyzone. Es un… incorruptible!’
‘In… corruptibles?’ I think of the film, remember that brief window of time when Kevin Costner was quite the man.
‘Santo Boyzone! Ay Dios mio – que miraculo!’
Dances with Wolves, wasn’t it? And then, oh dear, Waterworld.
Senora pushes a little booklet into my hand. It is published by The Society of Divine Truth, whoever they are, and it is called The Five Steps to Sainthood.
She opens the book at a folded page and points to a highlighted section: ‘Sign 5: The miracle of incorruptibility.’
‘OK, right. Thank you, Senora. Er, can you... leave this with me?’
‘Por su puesto!’
‘Now I’m very sorry,’ I say, as I try to think of a gentle way to draw this whole exchange to a close. ‘But I must inform Angel of the situation. Mi... hombre.’
It is the first time in many years that I have referred to Angel as my husband in any language, or at least not without wanting to spit blood at the same time. But Senora Buena Muerte is old school, as I say, and always ready to defer to the hombre.
‘Claro, Senora! Claro que si!’ She immediately gets to her feet. ‘I leave?’ she asks, gesturing hopefully at all her paraphernalia.
‘Leave... the incense,’ I smile. ‘Boyzone loved incense.’ Which is a very me thing to say, in that I’ve just made it up.
Senora Buena Muerte looks pleased. She crosses herself deftly once more, kisses a medallion attached to her beads, and is soon gone.
‘Angel,’ I say, a few moments later. ‘You just won’t believe this.’
‘Oh. My. God!’ he giggles. And for a moment it’s 20 years ago.
Hey you! The air is brightly coloured with your smile. Your laughter is my birdsong. I watch sadness and happiness break over you, like the moods of the weather. If only you could see you as I see you! Oh yes! I wish only to reflect your joy in my eyes, so that you can see it at last.
I’m scrolling through the university research hub on my laptop. The case of Boyzone’s non-decomposition intrigues me. Tamara is at the other end of the sofa, tending to some chilli cuttings on a small table.
‘It’s a power animal thing,’ says Tamara. ‘I’ve told you about this before. It’s a manifestation of your animal essence, that’s all.’ She giggles, and I spot again the cute little gap in her two front teeth.
‘How is my dead pet a manifestation of my essence?’
‘Oh don’t be so... linear,’ says Tamara dismissively. She hates it when I come all sciency with her. She smirks. ‘I always said you were a bit of an old dog.’
What is Tamara’s inner animal, I wonder? A vixen? A scorpion? A wolverine?
‘Well, thanks very much,’ I say.
She strokes my arm. ‘Joking! You know what I mean: playful, strong, loyal. A faithful companion.’
A Siberian lynx? A Moorish Idol? A Northern hawk owl?
‘I’m not sure Gloria would ever think of me as “a faithful companion”,’ I say, for some reason.
‘Well.’ Tamara sits upright, as if she’s just taken a smart blow on the chin and is ready to strike back. ‘That’s because she never knew how to bring it out of you.’ She strokes my arm. ‘Let’s face it, I don’t think she’s very enlightened, you know… shamanically speaking.’
Oh Lord. I look into Tamara’s extraordinary violet eyes, so clear and challenging, and I know in an instant both that I have never desired anyone more – and that it is only a matter of time before I leave her.
‘Also, what kind of a ridiculous name is Boyzone??’
‘It’s the name Gabby gave him?’ I try to mask it, but there is a definite edge in my voice.
‘My daughter?’ This chat is not going well.
‘Oh yah. Sorry.’ Tamara’s ways of repairing things are always physical. She slides over to me across her cruelty-free sofa and I inhale her scent and stroke her skin, and for a few moments I forget everything. I even forget the little comeback of my own that I’d been brewing – something to the effect that anyone who chooses to call their little boy Apollo Moondew Waterfall is probably not best placed to make fun of other people’s naming choices. I don’t care how beautiful the dawn ceremony atop the Tor at Solstice was, that poor little sod has many hard years ahead of him in the playground.
It used to be exhilarating, leaving people. It was grim and painful too, of course, but I always felt I was doing something ultimately positive, something right not just for me but for everyone concerned. A growing pain; a moulting. Does it hurt a hermit crab to change shells? Does the caribou mourn the shedding of its antlers? Does the Mexican Red Kneed Tarantula grieve the loss of its old familiar exoskeleton? (Note to self: No more dates with postgrad students.)
Perhaps if you were less obsessed about animals, you’d be better at understanding humans, a tearful Gloria said to me more than once. Gloria, who left me. Monogamy is not a universal norm, from the evolutionary perspective; I should have been an early Mormon. Then again, we seem to evolve towards monogamy as parents. Fathering requires sufficient sexual exclusivity to provide for assurance of paternity (him) and adequate resource provision (her). With Gloria and Gabby, for a long time, I was only too happy to build the nest, sit on the egg, feed and defend our chick. We enacted perfect romantic pair bonding. For a season at least.
Tamara hands me a tab of something or other, and I ingest it without thinking. I feel the familiar tingle of narcotic panic as I cross again the threshold of self-control. I have never broken up with someone when high before, but why not? I have done it in so many other ways – in a rainforest, on a scuba dive, in a lion enclosure. Even in mid-climax, once, which did not go well.
(As an organism we are programmed to keep scanning the radar. However committed to bi-parenting, we still possess powerful non-monogamous desires, because of course it will always be potentially adaptive to mate with a partner with the best genetic material or the most resources. But though I cheated on Gloria a-plenty, on her terms, I never cheated on the three of us, on mine.)
‘I must go and see Gloria tomorrow,’ I say. ‘She’s so upset about this whole Boyzone thing.’
Gloria, who left me.
‘Oh for God’s sake,’ says Tamara. ‘It’ll just be a pocket of radiation or a 5G surge. Or a vibrational vortex. The primal peoples write about such things all the time.’
I let this pass. ‘I must go,’ I say. ‘She’s really cut up about it.’
‘Wow. Can you not see what she’s doing?’
‘Even now, she wants to own your ego-self through time.’
‘Yes! She demands your appearance whenever it suits her because she needs to demonstrate that you are still part of her circuit of psychodynamic control.’
‘I’m not sure I follow. And I have to say, it’s a very, very long time since Gloria has demanded my presence for anything. Quite the opposite, in fact.’
‘You just don’t see it, do you? How she tries to stifle your energy with hers. She has these long cold auric coils that she emanates, and you’re just choking in them vibrationally.’
I am starting to feel a little disembodied. ‘I have an A level in physics and a degree in evolutionary biology,’ I slur. (I forget in my rapidly altering state that I am also an associate Professor of Zoology.) ‘But I do not recognise this energy of which you speak.’
Tamara’s eyes are dilating and her neck is rouge. She says she has something to tell me, but it seems I have decided to blurt out my own news first. Never let them speak first, another lesson I have learnt the hard way. It’s all a bit of a blur, but I believe I go with, ‘This isn’t working’.
Tears, punches, silent reproach. A few projectiles. These are the sorts of things I have come to expect. But Tamara snarls; suddenly she is a furious mandril, a pitiless serpent eagle, a haunting Great Plains Wolf.
‘We will meet again in the next life,’ I say. Even in my growing delirium I am aware of a little frisson of self-congratulation: this is surely the perfect line for breaking up with a New Ager.
‘No. We won’t,’ she says, and she looks at me with a terrible pity. ‘You are a very unevolved soul.’ And I seem to see her fold in half, reach down with tremendous yogic suppleness and pull something wet and precious from inside herself. An orphaned flying fox. A tiny spider monkey.
A scrunchy, fluffy chocolate labradoodle pup.
‘You will never know your own,’ she says.
Boyzone was lying out in an open hole for five days before the women in the plastic suits moved in. They set up a cordon and a tent, and brought out instruments that beeped and clicked. They trod mud all over Mum’s new kitchen, and ruined all the landscaping that Theo claimed to have almost finished. The whole thing reminded me of that bit in ET when all the scary agents and government scientists move in on Elliot’s house. Finally, they took Boyzone away, in a special plastic crate.
It all seemed a bit pointless, to be so worried about contamination or radiation or whatever, because by then half the neighbourhood had traipsed in and out of the garden to gawp at the miracle of ‘the dog that wouldn’t leave’, as the Argus put it. There was even a camera crew from the local TV station, and a couple of news agency stringers too.
The journos all seemed pretty unimpressed about the whole thing, and you couldn’t blame them. There wasn’t any developing story to chase, just some static footage of what looked like a sleeping canine in a hole. (‘How do we know it didn’t die last week?’ I heard one of them mutter. ‘How do we know it’s even dead?’ said another.)
One of them kept sniffing round me and Mum for some sensational backstory – they wanted some special symbolism or supernatural dimension, I think. Did Boyzone come back for a special reason? Did he have unfinished business? Had he always loved that part of the garden?
Had anyone been in contact yet with the surviving members… of Boyzone?
The questions were all a bit crap, really, because they all seemed to be based on the assumption that Boyzone had come alive again in some special way – that he had made an active choice to return. But he wasn’t a ghost or a spirit or anything. OK, something had happened to his body, to stop it decaying as it should, but no doubt there would be some boring scientific explanation for that in due course. But my dog Boyzone – my best friend through all the crap years of Mum and Dad – was still dead. He’d just been dug up.
I suppose if you wanted to believe in a miracle, you only had to look at Mum and Dad sitting in the kitchen, hugging mugs of coffee and shrieking with laughter at poor old Senora Buena Muerte.
‘Boyzone reforming – now that would be a miracle,’ says Dad. Mum giggles, unembarrassed. It’s almost as if Mum never tried to run Dad over in the driveway, never threw his five-grand microscope out of a second-floor window, never hijacked one of his student lectures with a PowerPoint presentation of her own itemising all his infidelities. And it’s almost as if Dad didn’t deserve it all, as if Mum’s jealousy didn’t provide him with an easy excuse for going astray again and again. I think he liked to see himself as some sort of alpha primate for whom the usual rules don’t apply. But the fact is, he was just another selfish bloke who couldn’t keep it in his trousers.
People split up all the time. So much is life, and usually it’s for the best. My own break-ups are always a relief, you can see them coming a mile off. Mum and Dad, on the other hand, seemed to spend half their marriage breaking up, and then making up – only to break up again. It’s hard for me to remember it this way, but people were always telling me that Mum and Dad were meant for each other. Everyone knew this, apparently, yet each was like an animal programmed to go on trying to hurt the other, even when they were hurting themselves more.
And I had my own ringside seat on it all.
I remember lying in bed every night, listening to them snipe and shout at each other. During the day, they would try very hard to keep things normal for me, but as a super-sensitive teenager, there’s not much you don’t pick up on. Anyway, it wasn’t exactly hard. The airing cupboard in the corner of my bedroom sat directly above another floor-to-ceiling cupboard in the living room downstairs. The water pipes must have left some gaps between the floors, because if you opened the cupboard door and stuck your head in a little, the sounds from downstairs travelled up perfectly. I don’t think Mum or Dad ever knew this, but I could hear every single word.
I spent hours every night with my head on a pile of blankets, one side of my face all hot from the boiler, and an arm around Boyzone, who never left my side. Together we sat and listened as Mum swore and threatened and cried, and Dad waffled and protested, tried to deny or downplay everything, issued promises and apologies – then, when none of that worked, tried to make out it was her fault and turn the attack back on her. I learnt a lot of swearwords in those years, a lot about hatred and a lot about pain.
Mum took me to church a few times when I was little. It always bored me rigid – the weird incantations, the endless silences, all the standing and kneeling like the living dead, the fake smiles and handshakes. But I must have taken something from it, because I remember at night I often used to kneel by the piles of lavender-fresh laundry, and pray for Mum and Dad. And me. Boyzone would rest his head quietly on my leg, as if he understood, as if he was praying too.
And now: what? Were they going to get back together thanks to our old dog? Was this the real miracle behind his non-decomposition? Had my prayers been answered? The journos would love it, of course.
But some things aren’t meant to be fixed. Sometimes ‘making up’ is just a Band Aid for a hurt that can’t really be healed. We do it for practical reasons, so life can go on, for the kids. Well, please, folks, don’t do anything on my account. As we now know, simply burying things doesn’t always make them disappear.
Mum and Dad back together? Over my dead body.
Whoa! When you are sad, I am sad. I have no power to change the things that make you sad. But I am here. Yee-hah! I am always here for you.
With my landscaping work on hold, I’ve had a bit more time for research. It turns out you can see a lot of these incorruptible saints online. There are various churches and cathedrals all over the place (well, mostly Italy) where the bodies are actually on view. It’s all on Youtube.
Lots of these ancient bodies have survived various mutilations and removals down the ages, not to mention a suspicious number of fires. St Bernadette of Lourdes fame is the poster girl of the incorruptibles – a pious sleeping beauty in a glass case, her rosary-draped hands clasped in prayer.
Bernadette’s body was exhumed three times as part of the canonisation process – an unspoilt corpse being one of the classic signs of sainthood. She was reported to be largely intact the first time they removed her, in 1909, 30 years after she died. But by the time she was pronounced officially ‘incorrupt’, parts of her skin were missing, and her face had a blackish colour, so it was decided a ‘light wax mask’ would be in order. And now she lies in her crystal casket in her convent in Nevers – ‘a martyr,’ it says here, ‘to our ghoulish curiosity’.
Now I don’t mean to be funny, but a lot of these incorruptibles don’t look that great. I mean, they’ve been dead for hundreds of years so it’s kind of amazing they look like anything. Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that people kept wanting to dig them up. Also, different convents and monasteries were jealous of who got to keep the remains, so body parts were often hacked off and shared around – a leg to Segovia, the heart to Florence, the head in a special case for Rome.
Not surprisingly, each of these upheavals made the body look even worse – apparently, the reason Bernadette went off colour was blamed on the poor nuns of the time, who tried to give her a wash, no doubt with the best of intentions. If she’d been left alone, who knows how great she’d still look?
Who gains from a body being incorrupt? If I live a holy life of exemplary self-denial, is a flawless corpse really the reward I’m after? Perhaps it’s to help others believe, but then how do the patches of mildew and missing bits of skin encourage the faithful? If a miracle can be worked to make a body half-survive centuries in the ground, why not go the whole hog and give us pristine cadavers instead of these holy zombies? But perhaps you have to leave a little gap, for people’s faith to fill.
Are they going to give Boyzone the Bernadette and Chairman Mao treatment, I can’t help wondering? Stick him in a see-through box in a chapel somewhere? Saint Boyzone has a sort of ring to it. Canonisation. Canine. Canine-isation. There’s a joke in there somewhere, but it just won’t come. Which is not like me.
Can you get animal saints, I google to myself? Not officially, although there’s a story of a Saint Guinefort, who was actually a greyhound. Legend has it that he saved a child from a snake attack, but was originally thought to have attacked the child himself and was slain for his trouble. After people realised the mistake, a shrine was built and parents took to leaving their sick children by his graveside.
According to legend, St Christopher came from a half-human, half-hound race known as the Dogheads. Half-dog sounds kind of cool. I mean, your sense of smell would be incredible. In Finland, they believe Christopher was so good-looking that, on being baptised, he asked God to make him less attractive to women. So God made him a dog! Not necessarily the best choice, in my view. My last boyfriend said that he’d never a better kisser than his Cavalier King Charles. Which, you know, was a little tough to hear.
Dogs are faithful and kind, so were seen by early preachers as model Christians. Just as a dog heals wounds by licking, so prayer and teaching wash away sins. A 15th-century Islamic text advises those who seek holiness to adopt the ‘10 praiseworthy attributes of the dog’, such as not complaining of heat or cold, being happy with whatever you’re given to eat, and being incapable of hate, even if your owner beats or starves you. Also – a sign of a simple holy life, this – ‘leaving nothing behind to be disposed of’.
Only his body, and our feelings.
I was there the day Boyzone died. I helped to bury him. I don’t remember anything supernatural occurring, just a terrible sadness. It was pelting down with rain, and we kept slipping and sliding in the muddy yard. Our little grave seemed to fill with water quicker than we could dig it out, and I remember that the deadweight of a dead dog, even a labradoodle, is a surprisingly heavy thing. The body did not move, but it did its best to help us out by flopping and folding to fit into our hole.
Here’s another question for the internet: Do dogs go to heaven? Some people say yes, because all our happiness will be restored there, and that’s got to include your dog. Just this side of heaven (it says here) there’s a place called Rainbow Bridge. All the animals you’ve ever loved wait for you there, healthy and whole again. When you arrive, they break from the pack, cover you in licks and kisses, and together you cross the Rainbow Bridge together.
That’s what they say at animal funerals, and I do like the idea. Apparently it goes back to Norse mythology, and a burning rainbow that spanned the gap between the earth and the heavens. It sure beats the crappy euphemisms we use for death today, like ‘passed away’ and ‘departed this earth’.
‘Boyzone crossed the burning rainbow today.’ That’s more like it. Only: Why is he back? Is he waiting for someone to cross with him?
Waiting is loving; loving is not forgetting. I call but you do not come, not now, not yet. And in your absence I am happy, for I have someone to wait for.
When Boyzone is brought back to us, he’s in a small cardboard packet about the size of a Tupperware lunchbox. The air and the damp have done their work at last, the woman from the lab says tactfully. As a thank you for sharing our find – which, she says, has yielded much ‘valuable but as yet inconclusive’ data – they offered to arrange the cremation for us. I said yes. What else was I going to do – bury him again?
I don’t ask Angel if he wants to join us for the scattering of Boyzone. It was good to laugh with him, and remember a time when I didn’t hate him, remember why I actually rather liked him. (Understatement.) But there is a quiet happiness in making peace with the end of things. (Apparently he is going to be a Dad again, and I could not be more happy... that this has nothing to do with me.) In any case, if ever I did find myself slipping back down the slippery slope of Angel’s charm, I have only to catch a glimpse of my daughter’s expression. We move on.
Theo, Gabby and I drive along the coast to Hove, the bit beyond the King Alfred where the dog-walkers all go. It’s where Boyzone used to run for miles, in and out of the tide, chasing sticks, balls, birds and other things on the doggie horizon that only he could see. He was more a paddler than a swimmer. He seemed to love the wind as much as the water, and I will forever see his woolly ears flapping up and down and coming together above his head in lazy time with his ridiculously bouncy stride.
He was happy to be alive. As people often said, he always seemed to be smiling.
We stand at the edge of the water, happy for the tide to wash over our bare ankles. Theo says some rather incoherent words, something about Boyzone making old bones (a joke, I think) and a bridge made of rainbows and Happy are the Dog-heads.
Gabby gets her phone out and plays that Ronan song, You say it best when you say nothing at all, which ought to be ridiculous but somehow becomes very moving. The whole occasion rises up on me very fast all of a sudden, and I shed a tear or twelve.
THEO Back at Gloria’s, we all sit outside for a cuppa and I show her and Gabby some pics of Friday’s date. Terry. We’ve only met the twice, but I can’t help feeling this is the one!
Gloria and Gabby are both very complimentary about the little water feature that throws up a lovely column of spray from the pond that now sits on Boyzone’s old spot. Gloria seems pleasantly surprised at how quickly I did it all, and is especially impressed at how you can’t even see the filter. It’s so pretty the way the drops catch the sun and the water glistens and ghosts in the play of the breeze.
I say I can’t accept the extra money she offers me for the work. It’s to remind her of Boyzone, I say, it wouldn’t be right.
Plus I had nothing to do with any of it.
I forget the lyrics of the song now, but there’s a bit about how a look in your eye says we’ll never be parted. Nothing like the love of a dog to remind you of the crapness of humans -- the weakness of our will, the frailty of our promises.
The ashes fly out over the sea for a brief second, but then of course a gust whips them right back in our faces. Whipped by the grit of his remains, we all lick a bit of Boyzone. It feels right.
In the water we wake to a new life. The light sparkles and the moment wraps us all in its joyful embrace. The beach breathes in the sun, and the breeze tickles and teases. My apartness calls to your apartness, and together we chase after the One. Whoo-hoo!!