The call came fortuitously, on a Friday evening when I had called to my parents' house on the way home from work. The caller, asking if my parents would be interested in rehoming a one-year old West Highland Terrier called Alfie. His owner told me my parents had met him on walks in the town close to where they lived. She said they’d been bowled over by his perky personality.
My own love for Westies had been copper- fastened many years earlier with Terry, my parents fifth birthday present to me. Terry was a white, fluffy bundle of joy that stayed with me until I left for university. Now, posing as an adult, with a job and my own place to live, I was ready to embark on dog-ownership for real.
Alfie’s biological mother, as I would forever refer to her, explained that she and Alfie were living in a housing estate with neighbours who worked nights. Alfie, the consummate adventurer, spent his days digging flower beds and barking in the back garden; interrupting sleep and generally being a nuisance.
I didn’t hesitate for a moment. I explained to her that my parents weren’t interested. They already had a needy Labrador. I, on the other-hand, lived in a shared corner of a 600-acre walled country estate with practically no neighbours, and was desperately in need of a dog.
She immediately agreed, probably convinced by the excitement and conviction in my voice that this was meant to be. Looking back on it now, it was nothing less than fate.
A few days later, I collected Alfie. I placed him on the passenger seat of my car, and on the drive home promised him we’d be best friends forever. Little did I realise, it was the jolly little terrier on the seat beside me who would bear the weight of that promise, far more than me.
At the time Alfie came into my life my father had been diagnosed with cancer. Within a week of Alfie’s arrival, a call from a consultant confirmed that time was up, and my father had just a few months to live. Alfie integrated into my life, hesitant at first, but gradually soaking into the fibres of every day, in a way that made it hard to imagine what life had been like without him. He was my constant companion through all that followed – my father’s death, and the shattering readjustments that followed.
I had been in a long-term relationship for some time, which would eventually limp to marriage, and in the years that followed, Alfie was there. He was joined by an oversized gentle boxer called Boss – white, with a brown patch over one ear and a brown patch over one eye. Time moved on and a house was built. Alfie became fondly known as The Smalfs. Memories were built on holidays to the west of Ireland with Alfie and Boss assuming the role of protectors, ensuring the waves of the wild Atlantic never swept me away.
And then it all went horribly wrong, the short-lived marriage failed, and the world was wrecked by an economic recession. Recovery was not something that could be imagined. Suddenly, the little white terrier so full of excitement and joy, became the only sign of life in the empty house I came home to every evening. His big brother, Boss, passed- away, and it was just me and Alfie – left to figure out where we might go from here.
His soft woolly head became a Kleenex substitute. His warm little body, the only comfort as I cried myself to sleep. After my marriage ended, I embarked on destructive patterns of behaviour. Through it all, the anger, fear and sheer hopelessness about the future, Alfie was my comfort – never judging, constant in his loyalty.
The recession did not subside, and I was forced to move from my home, into a tiny apartment that I could afford. Letting go of Alfie was never an option. My mother kindly agreed that she’d take him during the week while I was at work. He’d spend the days within the freedom of her massive garden and with her dogs to play with. I’d avoid the guilt of locking him into my tiny apartment while I spent 12- hour days out of the house, between work and commuting. Come the weekends, we’d reunite.
Life eventually became kinder. A new man appeared and on our first weekend away together, Alfie cocked his leg on a beach in West Cork and peed against him. To me, it was the only sign I needed. Alfie was claiming him and so we would keep him.
We settled into our new normality – weekends together and weekdays apart – but he was always my dog. As soon as I went to my mother’s house, he’d run to greet me, and we’d pick up where we’d left off. I brought him on holidays, he’d climb into bed with me at night and greet me in the morning as if I was a long-lost friend he hadn’t seen in many years.
Time passed and eventually, changes became apparent. He couldn’t hear as well as before, and when the temperature dropped, he began to shiver. We bought him a coat and shouted louder when it was time to call him for dinner.
At the beginning of this year, I decided to put my house on the market. The economy had finally turned in my favour and the house that I had carried as a burden for all those years now had the potential to make me some money. I was living in it with the man, who was no longer new, and we were planning our next move together. The luck of a tracker-mortgage meant if things went in my favour, I might just be able to sell the house, and have enough left over to set myself up, mortgage-free. Not in Ireland, but somewhere warm and sunny, where I could continue to write full-time.
All went brilliantly at first, a bidding war for the house ensued. Then, out of nowhere, a health pandemic struck. I was being offered more than I had ever expected to sell the house, but circumstances meant finding somewhere to rent as an interim measure was not possible. With little choice, we packed our lives up and moved in with my mother – a move that meant Alfie and I would be together again, full time.
He was about to turn 17, and while I will never think positively of the time a cruel virus ripped through the world, those last few months with the joyous little dog, who only saw the good in life, are something I will treasure forever.
His hearing was completely gone, his legs unstable but still I was greeted with a wag of his tail each morning. From May to July, we co-existed, much as we had back in those early days – Alfie, never far from my side while I worked on my laptop all day; evenings offering up the gift of quiet time together.
The end came fast. I awoke one morning, to find Alfie unable to walk. A call to the vet was followed by a house visit, and confirmation of the kindest thing to do.
Now, every morning when I wake up, I walk to the kitchen knowing he will no longer be there to greet me. No more tail wags and unbridled displays of affection. He was a once-in-a-lifetime dog and I miss him every day.