By Helen LeFevre
Charlie started it. And when a ginger wages a campaign, you might as well capitulate.
“I like this one,” Tim said. “She’s the prettiest.”
The breeder winced: “She’s a bit — tricky.”
But the deal was done.
Home, to three young Burts, a flurry of visits from the Waller playground, builders, neighbours, and extended family. There was no quiet introduction to family life.
And she was tricky.
Top of the class at puppy school, Mattie would behave perfectly in the church hall only to drag me back along the A2, gaily disregarding the commands of ‘wait’, ‘heel’ ‘sit’, and ‘bloody slow down’.
Recall remained optional throughout her 14 and a half years — only the speed of pursuit eventually slowed. A proper dog lives through its nose and stomach. Mattie could smell the dead and rotting from a mile away; her only dilemma on arrival was eat? or roll??
Once weekends by the sea became the norm, her taste for seafood developed. She was partial to lobster leg, sneaked under the table by Emily at the Stiffkey Red Lion. But she preferred to scavenge dismembered crabs on the beach, a taste that progressed to a sushi-level consumption of the live article on the marshes at low tide. We would see their legs scrabbling as she crunched, then swallowed.
In Mattie’s world there were many rules.
When it thundered, the end of the world was nigh. There were nights in the cellar, under a blanket, Valium consumed, when we thought her adrenaline-fuelled hyperventilation might kill her. Border terriers were the devil’s dogs and needed to be attacked, theatrically, on sight. Wine was never a problem, but the moment a bottle of champagne was uncorked, Mattie would leave the room. The only dog who could differentiate a Chablis from a cremant.
Kites and cows — both abominations that needed telling: Get out of the sky, leave the field.
For a while, roman blinds were inexplicably scary; as were reflected lights in windows, the path past the church, German Shepherds and Collies.
The early years were complicated by a near-death experience. She was hospitalised for three weeks, and her digestive system took 18 months to recover. Not content with gut problems in London, Mattie visited vets in Harrogate, Ashbourne, Surrey, Wimbledon, the Isle of Wight and Holt. Jumping off the sea wall, rupturing cruciate ligaments, a grass seed in the ear, numerous ticks, and the old dog’s complaint of a mind that is willing, but a body that is not.
Mattie’s saviours were many.
Michael, who taught her to come back (mostly), and not be afraid.
Bamba, Gizzy, Lou, Millie, Pip and Frankie who showed her that dogs could be friends.
The Wimbledon vet who rebuilt her knee, and Joe for her rehab programme.
The Norfolk hydrotherapist — and not forgetting Fran, provider of excellent bones.
We gave chase, sometimes in fun, often in desperation as she became a dot on the horizon. The distant sound of a dog whooping and hollering our only clue to her direction.
A Northumberland beach, the Priory Bay golf course, Stiffkey marshes, Holkam, Ide hill and the majority of London parks bore witness to her great adventures.
Tracking Mattie was a dangerous game.
I’ve tripped over graves in Nunhead.
Crawled through a rhododendron hedge in Dulwich.
Dodged Park Run enthusiasts in Greenwich when she took umbrage at the PA system.
Hurtled after her, baying loudly, across Cley marshes — disturbing a rare purple heron that 50 dismayed twitchers had assembled to spot, and who were instead given a close up of Emily and I sprinting and swearing in hot pursuit.
One Christmas, in a YouTube worthy moment, she took off up the garden dragging my mother face first behind her. Together they ploughed a furrow in the lawn.
A clever dog is a challenge. A great believer in free will, Mattie knew many commands, and could even differentiate between a stuffed pheasant (Gregory), a threadbare duck (Frank), and one of Tim’s cast-off slippers. She could ‘spin’, ‘speak’, ‘jump’, ’sit’, ‘stay’, ‘down’ and ‘heel’. But only if she was in the mood.
Inexplicably, if a small child were holding her lead, she would behave impeccably. I’d like to think it was the goodness of her heart, but suspect it was the smell of recently dribbled food down face and hands that kept her near and attentive.
Over the last 12 months Mattie became frailer. Determined not to let Otto have all the fun, we would hear the dragging scrap of her back-leg claws as she valiantly kept up on long walks to the beach. As the neuropathy grew stronger and the walks shorter, we’d try to smuggle Otto out for a ball-chasing young dog frenzy — only to find Mattie, standing by the door, with a don’t you dare go without me look on her face.
I would often end visits to the vets by saying: “You’d tell me, if it was time…”
Not yet, was the reply.
In the end, independent as always, Mattie took the decision out of my hands. On the morning of January 29th, I woke, she did not. The time had come.
When we walk now, Otto weaves from left to right. Not sure of his place. Both of us acutely conscious of the hole on my left-hand side.