Chapter One: For the Love of Dogs
It was a cold, gloomy evening in December when I drove along the secluded lane and parked outside the old farmhouse. The building was dark and strangely eerie, displaying no evidence of life; I had a feeling they’d forgotten I was coming.
Braced against the night chill, I vacated the van, trudged the garden path, and rang the doorbell. Somewhere inside, a dog barked. That was Jake, the owner’s German Shepherd. I’d met him a few times. He was handsome and a giant compared to the normal of his breed.
There was no other sign of occupation. ‘Fine’, I thought, sinking my cold hands into my pockets. ‘I’ll give it a minute.’
It was a smart modern house, built by the owner himself on the grounds of an old farmstead. He was a professional builder and my best customer, which was why I loathed walking away. In the van, I had a stack of bespoke window frames that I’d promised to drop off on the way home from my joinery business in North Bristol.
I knocked on the door, and three sharp raps set Jake off again. I pictured him at the foot of the stairs, barking his head off at the letterbox.
“S’alright boy,” I murmured under my breath. “It’s only me.”
Still no answer. Growing impatient, I went round to the side of the house and knocked on the patio door, feeling like a sneaky burglar.
Somewhere inside, a light pinged on; I ripped back to the front. Moments later, the door flew open. In that split second, I had just enough time to see a casually dressed woman in her thirties standing on the threshold. I had met her a few times before and was about to open my mouth to give a cheery greeting, only to leave it gaping motionless, as Jake hurtled past her, lunged at me like a hungry lion, and clamped his jaws round my nether regions.
I don’t think I even cried out; the pain sucked the air from my lungs. I was aware of the lady of the house shrieking, “Jake, no! Off!” and remember pushing at the dog’s rippling neck, trying to wrench free, my heart pounding.
The builder’s wife yanked Jake’s collar, which could only have been a moment before he recognised me, then released his wolf-like grip, backing off panting. His mistress pulled the muscular hulk of the animal into the back kitchen, then shut the door on him.
“Oh my God, are you alright?” she blurted, rushing back. “Did he hurt you?”
I could feel the dampness in my trousers, blood sliding down my leg, and pooling in the cuff of my boot. “No, no,” I choked out a feigned chuckle and waved her off. “I’m fine, I’m fine – no harm done.”
No harm done? Hmm... I don’t know how I off-loaded all those windows, hobbling back and forth to the van! I was too embarrassed to tell the builder’s wife the truth; it was just not me.
By the time I was done, and back in the van, the adrenaline was wearing off, and I was nauseous with the pain. Realizing I could not go home, I gave my wife Jean a quick call, glossing over the gory details like I always did, then drove to Bristol Royal Infirmary.
‘Twas the season to binge drink and fall over; thus, A&E was full of the usual festive unfortunates; one young woman was still wearing a Rudolph headband as she slouched against her bleary-eyed friend. I thought the colour of her nose set off the outfit completely.
I sat with my legs crossed, nervously checking the floor every now and then to check I wasn’t leaking blood.
You cannot blame the dog – can’t blame a guard dog for guarding, although I had visited the house before and got on well with Jake. He’s obviously spotted that his owner was not expecting me, so I was a legitimate threat, or he mistook me for the vet and wreaked instant revenge for the tragic removal of his manly pride and joys.
I was actually very fond of dogs. My whole life has moved around canines, and extremely large ones too. During my childhood, there was always a Collie curled up under the kitchen table or a German Shepherd hurtling across the park to fetch me a stick. Then in my thirties, I discovered Newfoundlands, one of the biggest breeds on Earth.
If you have ever met one of these mighty dogs, you will understand why they have changed the course of my life. Newfies can change anyone’s life if they are on a lead and choose to go in a different direction from you, which they often do! They will take over your house, flatten you against the walls as they barge past; lie across doorways, trip you up, and headbutt you as they lean in for a slobbery kiss; uh-oh, my life, they are the gentlest, most intelligent, most wonderful animals I have ever had the privilege to meet.
They are powerful swimmers, too, with a long history of saving people from drowning, which is why I run a charity showing off their water rescue skills.
“David Pugh?” I jolted out of my daze to see a young nurse scanning the sorry crowd of casualties. Gingerly, I rose to my feet and followed her out of the waiting room.
In a small treatment area, another nurse was waiting for us, skimming through some notes. She looked pale, tired, and gaunt; I was praying she would not get her mitts on me.
“I understand you have been bitten by a dog, Mr. Pugh,” she said. “In the groin area?”
I gave them a brief outline of the attack, which had a whiff of slapstick comedy when you said it out loud. I could see the look on their faces, trying to be serious and professional. In fact, the ailing nurse looked even worse as she sucked in her cheeks to inwardly bite and stifle her amusement. In better times, I could have very well enjoyed a joke with two young female nurses; however, I was in too much pain to see the funny side and too little not to feel awkward.
At least it cheered up a dreary day for them both. I bet my misadventure was shared around the team that night over cigarettes and late-shift coffees – I can well imagine the comments. ‘I bet he thought it was a complete balls-ache of a day’ and, ‘what a fuss over such a little thing!’ I only hope it provided some comic relief.
The administration of the local anaesthetic was bad enough, but seeing Helga the Great standing over me, brandishing a massive needle and thread, was something else. ‘Lie back and think of England’ goes the phrase. I was led back but not thinking of England at all; more like I wish I had been drowned at birth. I just closed my eyes and prayed for forgiveness for all the jokes I had played on people and the bad things I had done in life.
I did not actually feel much; thus, the event was not as bad as I had anticipated. I was, however, hoping they wouldn’t bandage me up completely, so I could don my trousers again. Goodness knows what Jean would have thought if I had hobbled through the door looking like I was wearing oversize incontinence pants, but the answer would have been, ‘Not tonight, Josephine.’
At last, suitably stitched up, cleaned, and injected with precautionary antibiotics, I shuffled back to my van and started for home; the local was wearing off, and despite the marvellous effects of painkilling miracle drugs, I was still wincing in pain whenever I shifted in my seat.
To lift my spirits, I took the Clifton Suspension Bridge route home as there was always something inspiring about crossing this iconic Victorian landmark, twinkling with lights high above the blackness of the Avon Gorge. I was always in awe of the splendour of this engineering masterpiece; for some reason, taking a deep breath and enjoying a crossing always relieved any anxiety I felt. I’d even name one of my dogs ‘Izzie’ after its engineer, the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
As I made my way back towards my village on the edge of the city, it began to drizzle, and the windscreen wipers momentarily beat in time to the Christmas song on the radio.
I suddenly thought of my grandfather, Christopher. It dawned on me that he had actually helped to build the A&E department that had just patched me up. He, like myself, was a joiner by trade, having a well-established business in Kings Square, Bristol, and was the main contractor, working on an extension to the Bristol Royal Infirmary at the turn of the twentieth century. He is also a joiner by nature, playing for Gloucestershire Cricket Club and Bristol Rovers Football Club.
When the First World War broke out, he joined that too, signing up for the Royal Engineers with his cricket pals. He took his dog, Samuel, with him, a free-spirited mongrel, as most dogs were in those days.
On the western front, Christopher was tasked with building and shoring up tunnels, which were then packed with explosives and detonated under German lines to cause as much carnage as possible. I guess Sammy was brought along to sniff out the enemy.
One day, the tunnel my grandfather was working in collapsed, bringing a load of heavy earth down on him and two other sappers. As they lay there being crushed to death, Sammy raced back along the tunnel, barking to raise the alarm. Soldiers followed him back to the scene and managed to dig out all three men.
A few months later, my grandfather was gassed at Ypres and died from his injuries; thus, my father’s father never made it home from the trenches at all. Nobody seems to know what became of brave Sammy, but in the drawer at home, along with a photograph of my grandfather, in his soldier’s attire, I still have the medal Sammy was awarded by the National Canine Defence League (now called the Dog’s Trust), for saving the lives of three soldiers. It was the ‘doggie’ Victoria cross of the day.
What a futile waste of life war is, splitting families like an axe, sending splinters into future generations.
‘Never again’, we say. Then again, history can repeat itself in more positive ways, which I was about to find out.
I have been told I look like my grandfather, sadly, I never met him, but I am sure if I had, we would have enjoyed a very special family bond. It is uncanny how our lives intertwined, in passions and work. As I drove home that December night, the thought of him and Sammy put my groin injury in perspective. Yes, I had been bitten in the tenderest place known to man, but other than that, I was a fit and healthy forty-six-year-old – I’d live.
In fact, when I look back on it now, that German Shepherd probably saved my life – as will become apparent as our story develops.