My name is Cassiopeia. I am from the planet Caprica, now destroyed by evil forces. I am part of a rag-tag fleet searching for Earth, our ancient and spiritual home. I’m in unrequited love with a handsome Captain…
And now I am Princess Leia… in a queue at WH Smith. I am the last royalty of a Galaxy from long ago and far away, and I’m impatiently waiting for a Wookie to make his purchase.
Well, not so much a Wookie really, as a big sweaty man in the record department. I doubt if the assistant can even see standing behind him.
I am in town with my mum and little brother, and I am in my element. Smith’s sells my two favourite things: stationery and 7” singles. I have already purchased a shiny new handwriting pen, and a pack of multicoloured exercise books in which I will write stories and transcribe half remembered lyrics from Top Twenty hits.
It’s finally my turn. I go on tiptoe. In those days you had to ask for the single you wanted at the counter. I would like Judie Tzuke’s ‘Stay With Me Til Dawn’.
However…I am shy. And I am not quite sure how to pronounce her name. I falter. I quickly scan the poster displaying that week’s chart. ABBA. No, got the LP. Boomtown Rats? I like it, a lot, but Dad wouldn’t approve. ‘Wanted’ by The Dooleys ? A world of No. I settle for ‘After the Love Has Gone’ by Earth, Wind and Fire. A fine track, but not what I had set out to buy. (It would be nearly three decades until I owned ‘Stay With Me Til Dawn’ , when I eventually downloaded it to my iPod).
I get home happy enough, listen to my new purchase ,look at the virgin pages of my exercise books, and then realise I have practically no money left.
Pocket money day is Friday. Today is Monday. Oops.
Tuesday. I am sitting on the swings at the local park with my schoolfriend and near neighbour Karen. We are eating home made ice-pops while scrutinising the dark patch left by Davey from the Crescent last week when he fell off the slide and cracked his head open. The sun has baked the blood into the brittle ground. Kids were always cracking their heads open round there. Given that the Council saw fit to dig up the grass and lay concrete around the play area it was hardly surprising.
I am complaining to Karen because I don’t have enough pocket money left to get this week’s ‘Jackie’ magazine.
“You know,” says Karen ruminatively, “You could come and walk my neighbour’s dogs with me.” She pauses to retrieve an icy lump from her lap. “She gives me at least 10p a throw to do it. Janet’s been coming with me but she’s gone away.”
Janet is a schoolmate from the leafy side street further down our busy road. She would one day, far in the future, give birth to IVF triplets.
I watch a mongrel poo in the sand pit. I don’t like dogs, am scared of them. Karen knows this.
“It’s all right,” she reassures me. “They’re tiny things. Won’t hurt a fly.”
I pull a face of distaste.
“Please?” she says. “I don’t like doing it on my own.”
I sigh and tell her, yes, okay, and to my horror she finishes her ice-pop in one gulp, stands up, and says, “Come on, then !”
I am wracked with fear and guilt. Not only am I facing my biggest fear, dogs, (next only to Miss Wallach, our bearded cookery teacher), but I am standing in a stranger’s kitchen. Mum will go mad. If I tell her.
Remember the grown-ups in the Peanuts cartoons ? No? That’s because you only saw their feet and their voices were distorted. That’s how I remember Karen’s dog-owning neighbour. I must have spent most of my time looking at the floor, probably because that’s where the dogs were and I wanted to make sure they weren’t trying to bite me.
They were Papillons. I’ve never heard of them before this. Never knowingly seen one since. It’s a kind of toy spaniel, with ears supposedly in the shape of butterflies, hence the name.
“This is Pepe,” says Karen, pointing to the larger ginger and white one, “and this is his mum, Tina.” Tina is black and white, smaller and definitely more docile.
“You can have Pepe,” continues Karen, trying to seem cavalier but somehow I know she’s planned this and clearly prefers Tina.
Leads go on and we have instructions to walk around the block once. This pair aren’t, it seems, too fond of going walkies.
The first couple of days go more or less without incident. I am bemused by the leads the owner chooses to use. They are called, says Karen, choke chains.
The idea is, if the dog is unresponsive, you give a sharp tug on the choke chain thus ‘encouraging’ the dog to do as it’s told. It seems a tad harsh to me so
I am patient and never tug the lead. Well, to start with I am.
I soon realise that Pepe is a lazy, stubborn little bugger. He is fond of just sitting down randomly on the pavement and absolutely refusing to budge. I very often have no option but to give the chain a good yank and haul him on his way. After a week I think nothing of it.
A few days in and 50p each better off we bump into A Boy we sort of recognise from Karen’s road. We go all silly (we attend an all-girls school and don’t have much contact with the opposite sex). He approaches us, furrows his brow and wrinkles his nose.
“Why,” he says almost accusingly,and pointing specifically at Tina, “Why have you got cats on leads?”
I surprise myself with my defense of the little rats. “Not cats,”I stammer. “Papillons.”
He shrugs. It means nothing to him. He tags along with us for a while and then disappears towards the town centre with a vague wave of his hand. I am glad to see him go; I’m not yet ready for boys. I can only just about cope with Photo-Love magazine.
The days of late August roll by, and every day I keep my promise to walk the dogs with Karen. And every day I dread it more, but am too conscientious to let Karen down. Pepe is the most frustrating animal, temperamental, unwilling, with a haughty, arrogant air about him, as if he were Royalty and I a mere handmaid.
I still shudder recalling the afternoon Religious Beryl saw me.
Beryl was a friend of my mum’s and I knew her daughter. The family were devout Evangelists. When I had tea there I had to remember to say Grace and not start shovelling in the sandwiches with everyone else looking ruefully at me with their hands clasped. I thought Beryl’s husband was a Vicar because what with being religious, and having a high shiny forehead, sharp nose and piggy eyes, I fancied he resembled Mr Collins from Pride & Prejudice (he was actually a Man from the Pru).
So, Pepe’s having a particularly big tantrum. We had dared to deviate from round the block and had crossed the road to visit the sweetshop. Pepe didn’t like it. Down he sat, tightly on his haunches, and refused to move. I’m pulling the choke chain, once, twice, three times, four. No reaction. Exasperated I start to rant. If I’d known the phrase I would have called him a definite son of a bitch.
“Move won’t you you bloody devil dog !” I shout.
I’m aware of being observed. I look up.
“Oh…Hello, Aunty Beryl…” I stammer. “I’m just …walking a dog.”
She looks at me over her horn-rimmed specs. “Say hello to your mother for me,” she says, simply, but I know she has consigned me to Hell.
Pepe is bored of this game by now and springs to his feet.
I sigh and wish for Janet’s imminent return.
Two days later my wish is granted. Janet takes over and I can now pick and choose whether or not I go out for walkies too. I quite often do, just to be sociable. School starts, but we carry on walking the dogs every other day now, into October.
Pepe’s moods are still pretty dark and his stubborn streak seems to get wider by the day. But it’s not really my problem any more, I think, as I watch Janet wrench that choke chain to get him to shift.
But one day …
Poor Janet. She pulled the choke chain once too often.
Pepe sort of looked up, puzzled, and promptly keeled over. Playing dead wasn’t a trick he knew (these dogs were untrainable) so we know this is serious.
We look at each other in horror.
“Oh my God, Jan, you’ve killed him!” exclaims Karen.
Janet’s face is white. We look at her, then down at the dog.
“Do something!” I am panicking.
We’re only about 200 yards from the dog’s house. Janet starts to pull the limp body along the pavement.
“We’re going to have to pick him up,” Karen says solemnly.
Well, I’ve never picked up a live dog, I’m not starting with a dead one. But all I can think is not, poor Pepe, but, thank God that didn’t happen while I was walking him.
It is Karen, who was born aged about 45, who scoops him up in her arms, and we leg it back to her neighbours house and all speak at once trying to explain what has happened. It’s a miracle poor little Tina doesn’t bite the dust too, she’s never had to move so fast in her life.
We’re a cacophony of girly screeching, flustered , sobbing, pointing.
Pepe’s owner takes a deep breath. She says something like, “Well… he was a heart attack waiting to happen, you know.”
Thanks for the warning, lady.
Pepe’s eyelids flutter. I scream, “He’s alive!”
He is, but not I suspect, by much. We leave the owner to call the vet and , ten pence -less, we trudge home.
Karen rings me later. Pepe’s a goner. I am sort of sad. But I am more happy that it hadn’t been me who delivered that last fatal pull of the evil choke chain.
My diary entry for that day, 24 October 1979, reads:
Pepe , one of the dogs we walk, died today.
ITV IS BACK !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Oh yes: my sadness was forgotten because the ITV strike was over and we had a third TV channel again. If smileys had been invented, no doubt I would have used at least one. Such is the resilience of extreme youth.
As for dogs…The following year Barbara Woodhouse was a huge hit on the BBC, screaming “SIII-IIIT!” and championing the use of the choke chain. I avoided her programmes. I might not be an expert, but I knew better.
I have never owned a dog and doubt I ever will.
But if I do, I will always make sure I walk it myself.
I recall that Summer with fondness. I believe it was the last innocent one, the final one of my childhood. One by one we were becoming teenagers. The simplicity with which we had lived our lives was gone, and was never coming back.
Sue is a married mum of two from Essex . She has an English degree from London University which remains unused. Previous published works are A Nativity Poem in the Parish magazine in 1977, and a reader’s letter to Radio Times in 2006. She is currently rediscovering her childhood love of writing in her middle age.