Sport 13 Spring 1994
Elizabeth Smither — Missy
Perth 18 Jan, 1994
Though you sign your confession ‘A’ I shall address you as Alan. I had thought of going through the alphabet: Aaron, Abraham, Absolom, but I imagine your crime, as well as your name, is more common. I am afraid I may already have given offence: I am an inveterate journal keeper, though I have never aspired to anything higher. It has become a habit with me to write the day’s events every night.
I imagine you have had many letters, a great deal of advice. So I shall— in an unusual departure for me—give you my solutions first. Then, if you have patience, and I fear you may not, you can go on to the explanation. Or is that explication?
Confession, candle, St Francis
Rescue of about-to-be-destroyed pound dog
2 and 3 may have their order reversed, though I think I prefer the order as given. Assertiveness training may be needed for dealing with the pound i.e. resisting the blandishments of a score of candidates and avoiding a repeat mishap.
Now I shall explain. Capitulate is what they say, like bringing a conference session to a close or, in my case, summarising a day in my journal. First, Alan, Aaron, Abraham, Absolom, I ask your extreme pardon—the way one might ask extreme forgiveness—for this preceding bluntness. The only thing I can compare it to is my little departed terrier Foxy who was practically made hairless one summer by fleas.page 106
I am garrulous—you can tell—and a compulsive reader: anything will do. Instructions on packets, car registrations which I attempt to memorise but fail, street signs. I read your ‘The Secret That Almost Destroyed My Life’ at the dentist where I had gone for root canal treatment. It says something that it distracted me from what I knew would be a series of distasteful visits. I took no chance of resuming my reading at the following session but slipped the magazine into my handbag. Had I encountered the eyes of the receptionist—a veritable dragon lady—I should have held my ground. Poor Missy … I began thinking of her from that moment. And, of course, thinking of you. Poor Alan.
Why does that word sound so awful, so condescending? Is it because we are materialists, even in the matter of that which is not material, which breathes as we do and is subject to our own short cycle? Birth marriage death. Birth breeding death. Only the second is doubtful. Concubinage or being spayed. You didn’t mention if Missy was spayed.
I cried when I read your story, Alan, your confession. For it is a column of confessions, is it not, secular style. I have had curiosity enough to look out another few examples: the man who embezzled his mother’s money when she was stricken with Alzheimer’s, guiding her shaking signature onto dubious documents; the woman who wounded her husband and prevented his promotion by sleeping with his boss. All much bigger crimes than Missy but I can tell you would not think so. And I really have no sympathy for the embezzler, the adulteress.
I have read Missy’s story so many times I know it by heart. How you dispatched her with a single shot to the back of the head like a Nazi general, after tying her collar to the fence with a piece of string. String was enough to hold the obedient loving animal. You executed her younger companion, the dog you did not love, first, the one who had savaged the pedigree cat and left it on the neighbour’s lawn like something made of rags. And Missy had only watched. Then you turned away, almost as though you were cheerful, matter-of-fact. I can see the set of your shoulders as you walk back to the house.
And then you must have gone inside and closed the door. Alone with bravado and shame. Certainly there is no comfort in these emotions, they are as repelling as oil and water. You don’t say whether you went back later and buried Missy and the other dog. Or how your relationship with your neighbours resumed. I imagine an unconquerable reserve, however you attempted to overcome it.page 107
And then the shame must have settled on you—the bravado would soon be gone—though it can be resumed at any time in control of the features, a forced smile—and others do not notice much—most people are not observant and go by surfaces. But shame, as a friend of mine who is a novelist said, is an entirely different matter.
I said I was garrulous, Alan, but there has been a gap. I have had to travel for a few days on business. I am trying to order my affairs to protect my children’s inheritance from the increasingly avaricious hands of the state. However I am doing all this in secret, using a lawyer, an old family friend, in another city. I don’t wish my eventual generosity to be a disadvantage.
I went by bus to look at the landscape: normally I fly. There is an entirely different class of person on a bus and strangely I felt more concerned about them than fellow travellers on a plane. On a plane I am often impatient, hoping a well-dressed child will not throw up or the businessman next to me stays buried in his papers. I sat beside a young woman and by the time she got off I knew a great deal of her life story—I won’t go into details—and even tentatively offered her some advice. I realised this was fatuous but her story seemed a privilege. Besides, there was no time to tell mine. Perhaps this is the function of old people, to give quantities of advice in the hope that some of it may stick. A Greek chorus causing mainly irritability.
The countryside was coming softly into spring. The most delicate green plumped foliage revitalised the roadsides. I pressed my face against the glass, marvelling at how softly but swiftly a landscape can be re-made. And I thought of you, Alan, Aaron, Abraham, Absolom, as we passed town after town and I looked out for dogs that might resemble Missy. I tried to remember how you described her: a bitser, a dog of the good sense to have well-mixed genes. Part-terrier-part-spaniel, both soft and fierce, qualities that are endearing in humans as well. I myself am very drawn to terriers with their ground-closeness, their often entirely inappropriate loylaties. We— the late Admiral Palamountain and myself—always had terriers. The only problem is they will tackle dogs twice, four times their size without a moment’s thought. Admiral P had a hankering for dobermans after he saw a photo of them guarding Macy’s in New York, but I didn’t concur. Oddly, those I have admired most and claimed as friends have something of the terrier quality. There is nothing more endearing than overhearing a fierce defence of oneself. ‘Don’t you dare say a word against Mrs Palamountain,’ I once overheard my housekeeper say and I was warmed all day by it. I had page 108 no idea she was fond of me. Of course she might have been proportionately displeased by the person she was speaking to. Funny, I never stopped to consider that. I started on my plan for you, to ease the pain that has gnawed at you for ten years, right there in the dentist’s waiting room, with my jaw aching and dreading the summons from the nurse. Your problem, Alan, was far far better distraction than a speck on the ceiling.
How garrulous I am! Have you read this far? I shall never know, never
overhear, for I don’t expect you to respond. It’s only the thought of your not
responding that enables me to go on in this way that Admiral P would call
mufffing. Being a naval man he was perfectly divided: men’s world and
women’s world. Surrounded by all that hardware, cruisers and guns and
depth-charges got all that men’s stuff out of his system at work. At home he
was a dove. But I think, Alan, you understand this muffing perfectly, in
words or deeds, and the nervousness and uncertainty it attempts to obliterate with a surface show. You said as much when you turned away from
Missy’s body with a military set to your shoulders, your head high as though you were gazing into a blazing sun instead of entering your own front door. And then you had to close it behind you. And then … Isn’t that the worst of the and thens?
Confession, candle, St Francis—I’ve had to turn back the pages to find
my own prescription. ‘Occasionally Mrs P you break through to some-
thing,’ Admiral P would say. ‘Launched a shot across the bows there.’ I’m
not presuming, Alan, that you go to confession: if you did you would have already been, mumbling into the ear of some elderly priest who regards your sensitivity with faint distaste. But I know this avenue was not open to you because you tried to gas yourself in your car and were found by a traffic officer.
When I talk of confession maybe I don’t mean a church or a priest at all, though if you can find one there is nothing better. To go into a dark old-fashioned box like a wardrobe a child might be locked into by a spiteful sibling, to find oneself groping in a claustrophobic dark and then, at the moment of near despair, to find a tiny barred window and feel under it, with knees accustomed to genuflect, a kneeler. I used, in the days of my childhood Catholicism and a little beyond, when I got a glimpse of its meaning, to think I was in a fable, like the Lady of Shalott looking down through her casement window. Or was I imaging someone walled up, with a small source of light?
Perhaps after your public confession, of which I was one of your page 109 recipients, your confessors if you like, thanks to a root canal filling, you may be able to approach a priest and ask for the real thing. Or even just a chat as you walk—a presbytery garden might be sufficient. Just a few bald words, which is what it remained for me: I have stolen my sister’s books, necklace, been spiteful, tried to destroy her reputation—it was always my sister. Later there were more elaborate, harsher words but by then I was more able to say them. I failed as you failed with Missy. You failed to defend her, to guard the life she had given into you hands, to allow its natural span which no one has the right to destroy. Is there some elderly black-cassocked weaary cynical priest you could say this to? And then have him bat back the forgiveness he is agency for? Then, since absolution is only given for a proper weight, like Shylock measuring his pound of flesh on a scale, you will begin to be free.
At least you can light a candle. Go up to one of those strangely burning brass altars, drop a coin in the slot (a small coin to cover the cost of a candle) and insert it into one of the holes. There is no need to feel self-conscious: the people who light these candles are for the most part unsophisticated. You might say under your breath, ‘For Missy.’ Touch it to another guttering candle and place it wherever there is a vacancy. I usually went for the lowest row as it seemed more modest. Also it avoids singeing your sleeve. And say a word to St Francis. Brother Wolf, Brother Bear, Sister Missy. Is it St Francis’s fault we humanise animals, see them as individuals? That saint, looking into the eyes of an animal, could read the character, the weakness, the possibility of redemption—the thorn from the paw—in an instant. He addressed the most voracious, the slaughterers, as though they were Mary Magdalen. I’ve always been fond of St Francis because he propounded a heaven for animals and acted all his life as if it was a certainty. Where would they all go, those herds of buffalo, obviously translated from this world to the next since there are none left on the prairies, those running streams of deer, lumbering giraffes? They might well run in herds, if that is their wish, but they are individually marked and individual. Missy. Your Missy.
Do you know I think an animal feels shame and understands it? My own little lapdog who used to leap onto my bed in the morning once refused to do so and seemed to be hanging her head. She had diarrhoea and her coat was soiled. Had she leapt and stained the bedding my love for her would have been quite overcome by shrieking and scolding. Eventually, as she kept her eys on the ground, I realised what was wrong and ran a bath for her. Then I took her to bed wrapped in a towel. I’ve never forgotten her look of gratitude and love. Don’t you think Missy might have understood your page 110 shame? And the look you exchanged was one of complicity? What we understand we forgive.
‘That went wide, Mrs P,’ I can hear the Admiral say. ‘Didn’t cross the bows that time.’ I suppose in naval warfare there are a lot of shots fired across bows that sink into the sea without making a point. Admiral Palamountain found me one of those slow-weaving merchantmen in a convoy. Only occasionally I managed to torpedo him, sink him in the oily sea.
I can’t believe, Alan, that you have read this far. Admiral P often
switched off: sometimes I conversed with the headlines of the Daily Courier
and my words fell back against their bold type. Musically I am drawn to the
fugue that sparkles and meanders and attempts to get up a theme. But how
do days pass without a theme? I think of your days after the death of Missy:
how you must have had to go back later, perhaps in darkenss—the Women’s
Home Journal does not say—to dig a hole and bury her and the other dog.
We imagine when we walk away with a straight back that something has
been solved, that we have made some final statement and heaven and earth
will support us. We think the scene of the crime will be obliterated. But it
is not so: we are often rewarded by a mockingly calm morning. You had to
dress and go to work—you don’t mention your career—but I see you as a
clerk in some faceless corporation which demands uniformity and application. Perhaps you set your face like flint which I have done myself. It’s quite
easy: simply imagine your cheeks are made of marble. You can speak and look but otherwise your face is immobilised.
For it is no the day of Missy’s death that hurts so much now—and hurts me, Alan, I believe I can have the impertinence to say that—but the weeks, months, years Missy, for her love, would not have had you suffer in. And eventually try to escape from. What a mystery we are that a single look can overthrow a life, that one misdeed, into which we are pressured, even if the deed has a hideous name, can obliterate all extenuating traces. All the happiness you gave to Missy, the food, the walks, the talks, the caresses, gone. But that’s how it is, like the photograph of the solider on the hillside in the Spanish Civil War at the second death enters him and his whole body expresses surprise, unpreparedness. I’m sorry, Alan, I shouldn’t have mentioned that. But perhaps you know what I mean. One moment for a life.
Can you bear the rest of my advice? Assertiveness training to protect you from neighbours such as yours whose behaviour doesn’t bear analysis. Not to me it doesn’t. If only I had been there, Alan, I should have had a few words to say. I should not have allowed your entrapment by bullies, your pain page 111 translated into excessive good nature. But let’s not get upset about it now. Goodness can be excessive as well as its opposite: there are lines to be drawn, besides fences, between neighbours.
Will you get another dog? Not just any dog but a dog Missy herself might summon for you. One waiting, unclaimed, at the pound perhaps, edging towards death row. How aware such animals must be. And how they must love their saviours. That could be your redemption, Alan. An eye for an eye as they say, a look for a look.
Though Admiral Palamountain has long gone to the Great Navy in the Sky—or maybe it is under the sea—no reason to suppose the sea might not be as animated with ghosts as the heavens and Admiral P was most at home on the sea—I hear him calling me to desist. In fact I am certain he disapproves of my writing to you. No business of yours, he growls.
You helped me through that root canal filling, Alan, and it is your story that has compelled me to write. Admiral Palamountain cannot stop me. I’ve already lit a candle for you and Missy—warning shot across the bows. Old widow’s advice, who needs it? The truth is I need to send it. I won’t put an address, only sign myself.