Monday, 10 October 2011

Just Another Manic Monday (and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday...)

Since my last blog was a little sad (and since those wounds have been well and truly opened since I wrote it, as fate would have it, so I definitely need to take my mind off it all with something else!), I thought today I might tell you all a story about a love affair that has stood the test of time. A love I've nurtured for nearly 13yrs. A love that has brought me unbridled joy, wonderful friendships and of course, the odd moment of hand-wringing and dismay. A love that began by stealing one of my sister's CDs.
Yes, I'm talking - of course - about my love for four blokes from Wales (there'll always be 4 to me), known collectively as the Manic Street Preachers.
Technically, that love affair has lasted far longer than 13 years. One of my favourite memories of living in our old house in Sawtry, back when I was around 11, is of hearing a song on Radio 1, which was played quite frequently and singing the only line from it that I knew (and which I got wrong). I would get myself ready for school in the morning, singing: "Like becoming a laaaandsliiiide," to myself. Of course the line was "life becoming a landslide, but that didn't matter to the fuzzy-haired pre-teen singing along. All I cared about was the catchy tune.
Little did I know then, but that was my first brush with the band who would become my heroes.
The next time the Manics entered my life was in February 1995. My Nan was dying in hospital and we were all understandably devastated. I'd eaten dinner and was slumped in front of the news when they announced that a car belonging to a missing man named Richey Edwards had been found close to the Severn Bridge. Richey had been in a rock band called the Manic Street Preachers. I remember, at the tender age of 12, briefly thinking: "At least we know what's happening to Nan. That man's family might never be able to have a funeral or anything..." I didn't connect the dots and realise that the band were responsible for the song I'd loved a few years earlier. But I did keep an eye on the news for while afterwards, just in case Richey was found.
The following year, a little song by the name of Design For Life was released. Now this is where I am annoyed by my own story, because in theory, this is where my love affair really should have begun. Instead, it was something of a false start.
Design For Life was a massive hit, kept off the number one spot only by Mark Morrison's "Return Of The Mack" (I know which song is still considered a classic today and it's not the one that topped the charts...). They played it at the local Youth Club I attended every Friday. And every Saturday, when I went along to the bowling alley a short walk from my house, where I'd bowl, play pool and generally have fun with my friend Clare and my sister Michelle, I'd put £1 in the juke box and play the same three songs: "Someday" by Eternal (don't judge me), "The Universal" by Blur and "Design For Life" by the Manic Street Preachers. That song was something of a soundtrack to the year I turned 14. And yet, in spite of my love for it and the singles that followed, I never bought the album (Everything Must Go), or bothered to look into the band's back catalogue. My uncle Steve, who'd been a Manics fan since day one, said to me: "One day, you'll LOVE this sort of music. You'll be a Manics fan rather than listening to boybands." We bought him Everything Must Go for his birthday, but in spite of the enormous temptation I felt... I never bothered to sneakily listen to it before I wrapped it. I was still obsessed with Take That and would later replace them after their split with 911 (again, don't judge me...). The Manics did, however get a few of their earlier songs into my regular listening habits. As an angsty teenager, I'd become fond of Alanis Morisette and my uncle Steve sent me a taped copy of her album, Jagged Little Pill. Those were the days when I listened to a walkman in the car on the way to family shopping trips and rather than leave lots of blank tape after the end of Alanis' album, uncle Steve put on a few more songs. Manics songs. To my surprise and delight, one of these songs was Life Becoming A Landslide, the song I'd so loved a few years ago.
And yet I STILL didn't get carried away. I liked the songs. But that was as far as it went.
A further two years went by and my sister - three and a half years younger than me, but infinitely cooler - began widening her music tastes. We'd sit in her room and listen to Sheryl Crow and REM. Then she developed a fondness for another band - the Manic Street Preachers. By that time, the band had released the follow up to the Brit-award winning "Everything Must Go." The new album, "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" was a slightly more acoustic affair on the whole, but with anthemic tunes such as You Stole The Sun From My Heart guaranteeing that it never truly strayed into coffee-table music territory. Michelle, my sister, thought it was brilliant and I was inclined to agree. Over the next few months, Manics posters appeared on Michelle's walls and by early 1999 she owned their entire back catalogue.
And so it came to pass that one afternoon, Michelle called me into her room to play me "the weirdest, coolest thing you'll ever hear." If memory serves me right, the song she was about to introduce me to was "The Intense Humming Of Evil," from the Manics' final album before Richey's disappearance, "The Holy Bible." My reaction?

"This is SHIT."
With that, I skulked back to my room, presumably to cleanse myself with some bubblegum pop. The trouble was, at the age of 16, I was starting to feel a bit sad for listening to quite so many boybands. As an adult, I freely indulge my love of Take That, I still claim 911 had some great tunes and I have CDs in my car with names such as "unappreciated brilliance" (which, okay, I don't always play when I have other people travelling with me...). But back then, I wanted to fit in. I wanted to listen to the "cool" music some of my friends were discovering, whether I liked it or not. Just days after the "this is SHIT" incident, I was at home alone, on study leave for my GCSEs. I had the usual kind of pop music playing in the background and I had completely and utterly run out of inspiration. I decided to raid my sister's CD collection, on the off-chance that she had anything I might want to listen to. On arriving in her room, my eyes were drawn to the large poster on her wall. This one, to be precise:
I found myself transfixed. I could take my eyes off it. Specifically, I couldn't take my eyes off Richey. The lost one, the one who had mysteriously disappeared. Up until that point, all I knew of the Manics was that fact, combined with the knowledge that some of their songs were brilliant. But as I sat there, staring at the poster, I suddenly felt compelled to know more. Taking The Hole Bible out of my sister's CD rack, I returned to my room, put it into my CD player and pressed "play."
Fifty six minutes and seventeen seconds later, I was hooked. I darted back into my sister's room and grabbed every one of the band's albums, before playing them back to back, copying them onto tape as I went. Many corny things have been written about the moment you find a song, album or indeed band in general that makes perfect sense to you. Whether it's described as being "smacked in the face," or "like a lightbulb going on," it's a way of saying "THIS is ME." Sitting on my bed that day, listening to every album the Manics had recorded to date, felt like a million different things combined. In some ways, it was like being handed a hot cuppa after a long walk - a massively comforting, satisfying conclusion. In others, it was like being pulled out of a coma - a sudden jolt that left me feeling more wide-awake than I'd ever been before. But one thing I knew for absolute certain, was that I'd found MY band.
Over the next few months, I collected the Manics back catalogue for myself, replacing my copied cassettes with CDs. I hungered for any information about the band and read books such as "Sweet Venom" by Martin Clarke and "Everything" by Simon Price. These were the days before broadband and we had no internet at home when my Manics obsession first began, so I would spend my lunchtimes in the computer suite in the school library, printing off pictures to stick on my wall and reading old interviews. I learnt everything there was to know about the disappearance of Richey Edwards and the various "sightings" since. I devoured the band's "manifesto," learnt the lyrics to the songs and dreamt of the day I would finally see "my boys" live.
That day was due to finally arrive back in 2001, after a friend very sweetly bought me a ticket to join him in Manchester to see the band on their Know Your Enemy tour. I arrived at my local train station, wearing a tiara and a feather boa, as was the "done" thing at Manics gigs. I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, I was told that my train had been cancelled and there was no definite replacement. I returned home in tears and holed myself up in my room with only Manics videos for company.
Thankfully, I was luckier on the band's next tour, when they played Plymouth and I went along with my sister and two friends. That night was a culmination of years of adoration and seeing them on stage right there in front of me simply made me love them all the more.
In the 12 and a half years since that day when I sat at the end of my sister's bed and stared at that poster, the Manics have given me more wonderful memories (and a few bad ones) than I care to mention. I've seen them almost a dozen times, I've met countless friends thanks to them, I've had the enormous pleasure of meeting my hero, James Dean Bradfield (the band's fantastic frontman) and I've known the hilariousness of wandering through Cardiff dressed as a sexy sailor (long story...).
Like all love affairs, we've had our ups and downs. I can remember hearing So Why So Sad for the first time and gasping: "This really IS shit..." I don't hate it so much anymore, but... I certainly don't love it. And there have been times when they - or more accurately, certain sections of their fanbase - have annoyed me so much that I've even considered walking away.
But then I'll put the radio on and Design For Life will come on all of a sudden and I'll be transported back to that magical time when I first heard the album from which that glorious single comes and I'd realise that no other band has ever had the same effect on me. Never have I been so passionate about a band, or so defensive of the members and their music.
The Manics are the only band I'll dress like an idiot and wander through crowded city centres for. They're the only band I'd stay up til stupid o'clock just to catch a three minute performance from. The only band who cause me to look at my pitiful bank account when a tour is announced and book tickets anyway.
I may go for weeks, or even months without listening to their music, or even thinking about them. But then, when I play an album, or read an article about them, all of those feelings flood back and it feels like coming home again.
Now, the band have announced that, following a "Christmas party gig" at London's O2 Arena, they'll be disappearing for a few years. Some magazines and websites are suggesting that they won't be back. Obviously, I hope that's not true - I'm not ready to say goodbye to my boys just yet, or to end the journey my love of the band has taken me on.
But when that day comes, be it at the end of this year, or further down the line, I will at least know that whilst the gigs may end, the friendships the band have given me will remain. The music will be timeless. The memories will last forever.
James, Nicky and Sean... See you in December. I can't wait!

Monday, 3 October 2011

It's Not War (Just The End of Love)

Take That once asked, in their song of the same name: "What is Love?"
I don't claim to have the right answer. But if the last few months of my life have taught me anything, it's that love is one of the most powerful, primal emotions a human will ever feel. With it, it brings a myriad of other emotions to confuse and delight the brain. Without it, a person can feel lost, even when at home. Lonely, even when with friends.
In terms of romantic love, the emotional rollercoaster has even more dips and loops to endure. Life would be easier if love was simple. If we could say "I am in love with him" and KNOW he felt the same. If someone said "I love you" and we knew we could believe them. If we could be closer to someone than anyone else in the world and not be so utterly apart just days or weeks later, that we start to question whether they ever cared for us at all. Or if the line between friendship and romance was never blurred.
The end of love - in any form - throws up so many unanswered questions and barbed insults, it becomes a bizarre edition of The Weakest Link for broken hearts. "Has he just replaced me with her (or in some cases, them)?!" May be the unanswerable question. "Of course he has; you're ugly and fat and he never really cared about you anyway," is the barbed insult we can't help but direct at ourselves.
Because of course, when someone we love loves us, we are confident. We look in the mirror and see the beautiful/handsome/funny person that they tell us that they see. We think "yes, I am a great cook/amazing in bed/the best listener in the world," because we hear those things from someone we trust. Someone we think all of those same things about. Someone we want to love us, because we adore them.
So it only stands to reason that should that person reject us, push us away or replace us, we magnify our own feelings of rejection by taking negative comments they may have made about us and not only agreeing with them, but deliberately building on them. Or, when the person has never really made a convincing argument for your sudden and complete dismissal from their life, trying to work out what it is about you that is so fundamentally unloveable (even though the truth usually is that there's nothing unloveable about you at all). "It's because I do that thing he always nagged me to stop doing," or "what if it's because she thought I was crap in bed?!"
And of course, if you're the one doing the ditching, you suddenly view this person who changed your whole life in an entirely different light. Whether that's because you genuinely don't love them anymore, or because you've met someone else and decided not to bother with the old partner anymore, or because you're simply looking for an excuse to end things (for any number of reasons, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous). Suddenly, the person you called and talked to for hours and hours is being "too in my face and not giving me enough space." The person you had once been wanted to see as often as possible, who you hated to see walk out of the door, is suddenly "clingy" or "possessive" if he or she shows that they feel exactly the same. All those "funny" little habits that person had - the silly things you'd tease them for, just as much as you loved them for them - are suddenly annoying.
Then, when it's all over, neither the dumper nor the dump-ee emerges as a "winner." Unless someone is completely devoid of all human emotion, or is burying their head so firmly in the sand that they truly believe they can let go without having to feel any pain whatsoever (regardless of whether they pushed the person away or whether they themselves were pushed), there will be suffering on both sides. Guilt is the primary feeling. "Should I have fought harder to keep us together?" Or "Did I do something to make them not love me anymore?!" Then loss and anger, confusion... With all of these horrendous, painful emotions swirling through every break-up like a hurricane of misery, it's a wonder anyone ever enters into a relationship, such is the risk.
In the aftermath of any kind of break-up, some people jump into bed with another man or woman as quickly as they can, thinking they can somehow replace the person they lost or pushed away. Others try to find answers at the bottom of a bottle. You might take it out on yourself, be it physically or emotionally.
But what astounds me most about love, is that no matter how much it breaks our hearts and leaves us feeling sick, under-confident and angry, it rarely leads to us giving up forever.
Time apart can lead someone to look back on the person they lost and, someday, to remember their good points. What silly things you shared together, the memories you created and the chemistry that you once had. Of course in other cases, time apart causes someone to suppress every positive thought they ever had of the man or woman who was once the very centre of their world. An olive branch may be offered and ignored, causing a barely healed wound to open up again.
But either way, some day we find ourselves ready to try again. I'm not talking about shagging around with random people. I mean to try a relationship with one person. One, special person who we feel ready to open up to. To share that closeness with again. And unless we close ourselves off and refuse to learn, or refuse to take our fair share of the blame for the downfall of our last relationship, we will hopefully avoid repeating the same mistakes again.
Love has a strange way of bringing us full circle. And even a broken heart will - I hope - not prevent us from going forward and finding someone to share our lives with.
Whatever love really is - a best friend, a lover, someone we're closer to than anyone else in the world - I know I don't want to stop learning more about it. You can bury your head in the sand, you can suppress your feelings and make out as though you never cared for someone, or replace something real with something frivolous. You can weep and wail and declare yourself to be unloveable. You can tell youself you'll never love again.
But almost all of us will.
Because, as Take That sang, we all want to learn what love really is:
If love is truth, then let it break my heart.
If love is fear, lead me to the dark.
If love is a game, I'm playing all my cards.
What is love?

Friday, 5 August 2011

Images of Perfection...

Doesn't Julia Roberts look beautiful? Can you believe she's approaching her mid-40's? I didn't even look that good at 20!
And yet... Okay, we're all aware that something's not quite right with this picture. We've all heard the debate about airbrushing a dozen times before. We know it happens and we know it'll continue to happen once the furore over this latest advert (now banned) dies down. Just as we watch adverts for mascara and coo over how beautifully thick the model's lashes are, whilst quietly ignoring the teensy tiny writing in the corner: "Model is styled with lash inserts for an even lash line," we'll go back to thinking: "Wow, that skin cream looks AMAZING!"
But is it unfair for companies to ruthlessly airbrush and perfect their models and celebrities, when all we have at home is a make up box and a mirror? Worse still, could it be dangerous?
According to research carried out in April by the University College of London's Institute of Child Health, 1.5 out of every 200,000 British children under the age of 10 suffer from an eating disorder, such as anorexia. Even more recently, a report by the health & fitness charity, Central YMCA and the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of West England in Bristol, discovered that 1 in 10 children would take a diet pill to make themselves look more attractive. Why are Britain's children so obsessed with their looks? Why are they worrying about being too fat, or not pretty enough, when they should be enjoying their youth and leaving adult concerns to the adults?
The answer may lie with a rather uniform approach to beauty, taken not only by Britain, but an alarming proportion of the modern world. Beauty is, so often, skin-deep. We're force-fed images of busty blondes, who, in spite of their comedy breasts, somehow have the waist of a twelve year old to go with them. Walk down any city street on a Saturday night and you'll see group after group of clones - teenagers and girls in their early twenties. All with the same haircut, all dyed the same colour, all with the same style of make up and the same fashion sense. Why? Because that's what's considered "beautiful." And who doesn't want to look beautiful? We are so afraid of not meeting the standards of attractiveness drip-fed to us via magazines and TV shows, that many of us abandon what makes us unique in order to try to attain an impossible ideal.
And it starts affecting children before they're even out of primary school. I've witnessed girls as young as 7, saying they "don't feel pretty enough." I've heard boys of 8 say they don't want to get undressed for PE in front of anyone because "I'm not as muscly as the others, I'm just fat." It's heartbreaking and it seems so easily avoidable if we just focus on real people and encouraging our children, friends and family members to embrace what makes them them, regardless of whether they conform to any stereotypes. After all, true beauty comes from within - isn't that one of the most important lessons we can teach our youngsters? Surely, by praising physical beauty to the point where we'll invent it (Julia Roberts is indeed a pretty woman - if you excuse the pun - did she need to be improved?!), we're ignoring the many more important factors worthy of praising a person for.
Look at that photo again. Julia Roberts is a woman in her 40's. She has three children. Nowhere on that picture can you see a wrinkle. Nowhere can you make out the tired eyes that go along with getting up in the night to see to your kids, or being woken up early during the school holidays. Yes, of course, she's a movie star and she may very well have an entire entourage of helpers, but by airbrushing away any tell-tale signs of age, the producers of the now infamous advert have also hidden any signs of life.
We are presented with an image of a person who conforms to society's ideal of perfection. Blemish-free skin, not a line on her face, no grey hairs, no dark circles... No humanity?
A person once said to me: "I can't wait to have wrinkles and grey hair. It'll show I've made it to old age, in spite of all the crap life has thrown at me so far." It was one of the most refreshing things I've heard in years. And it got me thinking...
I'm not perfect. My hair is unruly, my skin is plagued with eczema and the odd spot, I have a big, Greek nose, a tummy that will be nice and flat and toned one day and wobbly the next (I like cake, what can I say?!) and dimply thighs. I have lines around my mouth and beneath my eyes. I get dark circles. I can safely say that if society's view of beauty is anything to go by, I'm quite far away from winning any pageants. But should that define me? I'm also a passable writer, a good friend who enjoys making people laugh and I make a bloody good lasagne. Surely that's all much more important than whether or not my hair is glossy enough, or my teeth are white enough? After all, my big, Greek nose is a sign that I'm part Cypriot and reminds me of my late Paps, who was incredibly proud of his heritage. My tummy goes wobbly because I'm passionate about food and adore cooking. I have lines around my mouth from all the laughing I've done at comedy gigs, all the nights I've stayed up chatting with friends (they're probably responsible for the dark circles, too!) and the tears I've cried over lost loves. In other words, all of the things our beauty-obsessed media would view as "imperfections," are actually visual, permanent reminders of the things I've done so far in my life. The memories I've made and the lessons I've learnt.
Lets think for a second about all of those Hollywood films, in which the "ugly" girl becomes beautiful in order to ensnare her man, or win her dream job. Think about the "before" image. Stereotypically, she'll have had frizzy hair, glasses and a dowdy outfit. By the end of the film, she'll have discovered contact lenses, hair products and a whole new wardrobe. But what lesson does that teach young viewers? What about the girl of 13 or 14, watching that film, whose hair is unmanageable (I was that girl - NOTHING worked to tame my hair when I was that age), whose eyesight is so poor that contact lenses won't work and who doesn't have the cash to splurge on a row of cutesy little dresses. What are we teaching her? That only by changing the way she looks will she be successful? That to gain love and be truly happy, she has to become more socially acceptable?
I know you could quite easily argue that I'm taking these things far too seriously and that there's nothing wrong with a modern spin on the Cinderella tale, in which a girl is transformed. Indeed, there's a massive market for TV shows that do just that - you only have to glance at the schedules to see Gok's Fashion Fix and the like, offering to improve people. And if that makes them feel better about themselves, then who am I - and indeed who is anyone - to judge the people who go on those shows? In fact, I've watched it myself and said aloud: "I'd love to get Gok-ed."
But when we reach the point where we're airbrushing away the slightest flaw or imperfection, I do think we've gone too far. When I read that pictures of celebrities have been airbrushed to make them appear thinner, I wonder just how far our obsession with looks will go before someone puts their foot down and says "enough is enough."
After all, with children openly admitting that they feel fat or unattractive, we can surely no longer ignore the potential damage society's obsession with beauty is doing. When they turn on the television and see super-skinny popstars, with overdone make up, or when they go into shops and see magazines with airbrushed images plastered across the front pages, what message are they receiving?
Certainly not that it's okay to be who you are. Or that others may very well admire you because you do stand out from the crowd. Or even, crucially, that beauty alone may not bring happiness, because that has to come from within.
Lets give the children of the future a new message. Lets tell them to remember they ARE beautiful. No matter what's on the outside. And lets all lead by example.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Two weeks and counting...

I've always wanted to be a writer. It's one of the things I've dreamt about since I was a little girl with my hair in pigtails... Well, okay, when I was a little girl I had incredibly short, white blonde curly hair, the kind of which your Nan would be proud of and it didn't actually allow for the wearing of pigtails, but you get my point.
I used to dream that being a writer would entail carrying a notepad or laptop (we didn't have those when I was a little girl with hair that wouldn't tie up into pigtails) everywhere and sitting in fancy cake shops, ordering hot chocolate and cream buns, whilst watching the world go by and dreaming up exciting stories. Admittedly, the setting was probably more down to my enormous greed than romanticism, but it was a pretty picture all the same.
I'd fantasise about winning awards for my best-sellers and wonder which popstar I'd take to the ceremony as my date (the answer to that varies dramatically according to my age, but Mark Owen was always a safe bet). I'd picture myself sitting cosily on a sofa, being interviewed on any number of TV chat shows. Who knows, maybe some day I'd be given my own show. There was no limit to my dreaming.
I had visions of being courted by various publishing houses, each offering a bigger financial reward than the last. I'd become a household name. I'd live in a house big enough to have my own little office, in which I'd write manuscripts which would become instant hits. I'd live in a stress-free existence, fielding phone calls from radio and TV stations, selling the animation rights to my latest children's book and generally swanning about.
A small part of me is glad that that hasn't happened so far, because there's a very real chance I might have become a bit of an arse...
Still, in a fortnight, I'm leaving my job to become a full-time author. I've got a laptop, but I highly doubt I'll be casually sitting in a cake shop, stuffing my face and writing a best-seller. Why? Well, partly because my laptop is getting on a bit and the battery life probably wouldn't survive the trip. But mainly because I can't afford a cake. I can't afford a hot chocolate. It seems that amongst all of those big dreams I had, something rather important got a bit lost.
Being a writer is bloody hard.
Remember I mentioned all those big publishing houses, competing to pay me squillions? Yeah... I have a box filled with rejection letters, rather than cheques. "Thanks but no thanks" was the order of the day for more years than I care to remember. In fact, although the last thing I'm about to do is belittle my own achievement, it was really a chance encounter, a chance conversation and a case of knowing the right person with the right contacts that got me published in the first place. I'm not saying it wouldn't have happened one day anyway, but knowing an author whose publishing house was looking for new children's stories was less of a helping hand and more of a MASSIVE PUSH in the right direction.
Oh, and those lazy days, spent sitting in my cosy office, typing out manuscripts? Replace that image with one of a woman who still lives with her parents because she doesn't earn enough to even rent a place of her own and you'll be closer to the truth. Because, er, that is the truth. And at the moment, it's not manuscripts I'm writing. It's e-mails to schools, libraries, shops, newspapers, magazines... ANYONE who'll listen. "Buy my books, pleeeeeaaaaase! They're good - honest!"
Not that I'm knocking it. Far from it. There are millions of people out there who would love to have a book published. I was one of them this time last year. And the fact is, becoming a writer isn't a case of: Have a book published, then sit back and await your royalty cheque. It's a case of: Write a book, beg and plead for it to be published, beg and plead for local radio/newspapers to feature you, beg and plead shops to stock it, beg and plead people everywhere to buy the finished article and then try to find time to write a follow-up before your eyes fall out of your skull from the stress of all the begging and pleading.
Writing, like any job, takes hard work if you want to get to the top. I've just managed - after years of trying - to get my foot onto the first rung of the ladder. Ahead of me is one hell of a climb. Am I prepared for all the hard work? Yes. Am I stressed about paying my bills with literally no income once I leave my job in two weeks' time? Dear Lord yes. Do I sometimes wonder if I'm doing the right thing? Yes - I'd be crazy not to. But am I about to give up in the face of all of those stressy factors? Excuse me while I go all "street," click my fingers and say: "Heeeeell to the no."
You see, deep down, I'm still that little girl, dreaming of being a writer and fantasising about making it big. The only difference is that now I have the capacity to actually make it happen. Oh, and I can wear my hair in pigtails, too.
Wish me luck!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

All Dogs Go To Heaven

There are moments in life that we never forget. Some - most, if we're lucky - are happy memories that we treasure long into our dotage. Others are less enjoyable. Sadly, on Tuesday 14th June at around 2:10pm, a memory was created that I would like to forget. For on that day, I said my last goodbye to one of the most loyal friends I've ever had.
They say a dog is man's best friend and you'll hear no argument from me on that front. Cal, my beautiful, dopey, affectionate cocker spaniel was certainly a best friend to this, er... woman. By the time he slipped away at the ripe old age of 16, we'd shared four houses together, grown into adulthood alongside one another and been on hundreds - possibly thousands - of walks. He had also patiently tolerated any number of "funny hats" being plonked onto his fluffy head and posed for more photos than you could shake (or should that be "fetch?") a stick at.
Cal, or to give him his full, faintly ridiculous kennel name, Callington St. Emma (told you), had the original "Sad Sam" look about him. The term "puppy eyes" could have been invented for this little bundle of fur. The eyes in question were big and black and would stare mournfully at you, reducing the toughest of men to whimpering boys. "Aaaaaaaw!" was the most common reaction when faced with this especially cute canine. His expression was one of almost perpetual woe, which I always found a little hilarious given that his temperament was, for the most part, that of a perky toddler. "He's so sad looking," people would tell me. And I'd laugh and tell them that he was, in fact, a cheeky scamp with a naughty sense of humour. I lost count of the number of times my parents and I came home from a day out to find that Cal had cunningly nudged the kitchen door open and trotted upstairs to lie leisurely out of view in my parents' bedroom. He'd greet us with a look of pure disdain, as though we'd stumbled upon his own personal haven. And then of course, once he realised he'd been caught doing something he shouldn't have, we'd be treated to the full "puppy eyes" routine. It looked a bit like this:
Oh, such woe! Of course, I'd cave, smother him in cuddles and let him off. And then he'd return to much more important business, such as staring longingly at the fridge...
They say that a dog takes on aspects of his owner's personality and I think there's truth in that. I love being outside, I love my food and I'm an affectionate so and so. I'm also small, but rather feisty. Cal was all of those things and then some. Together, we made quite a team. It was a union I was proud to be a part of. The joy I would feel when a stranger would gasp in the street and tell me what a little cutie he was is a feeling I'll carry with me always. I was proud to have him in my life and I can only hope that he was proud to know me, too.
In his earlier life, Cal was a bundle of energy. He'd run through woods and across beaches, barking for us to follow. He'd chase me around the garden, tug on a chew toy and follow a football, all the while wagging his fluffy tail and seeming to smile, in spite of his Sad Sam looks. In the last year or so, he became a little slower. Less keen to run, but no less happy to play and be fussed. His jet black fur began turning grey and his bushy brown eyebrows started to fade. He became a little grumpier and liked his creature comforts. As the months passed, I changed my role from playmate to simply friend, taking time to stroke him, talk to him and, when he wanted to, walk with him.
He still had that cheeky sense of humour. He'd still stare longingly at the fridge, too. But I suppose if we're honest, we all knew that our time with him was, devastatingly, coming to an end.
I was with Cal when he fell asleep for the last time. I stroked his fur and told him, as I'd told him a million times before, that I loved him and always would. He died peacefully in his basket, with his blanket tucked behind him.
And so, last Tuesday, a memory was created that I would rather forget. But to focus on that memory would be to do a disservice to my little man. Cal was so much more than "just a dog." He had his own sense of fun, his own loyalty... He had an entire personality all of his own and together, we created hundreds of much happier memories, which I will treasure. He may not be around anymore, but the doleful expression that got him out of trouble, the cunning ways he'd manage to get out of having his fur brushed and the excited welcome home he always gave me will live on in my mind forever.
On Saturday, I had a paw print tattooed on my back, just below my right shoulder. It stands to remind me that somehow, Cal is always walking behind me. One day in the future, I may have another dog. Not because I want to replace Cal, because he was simply irreplaceable. But because the love he gave, the friendship we had and the many adventures we went on together have served to remind me of the intense bond a dog and an owner can have. It's something I'm not sure I can live the rest of my life without. The agony of losing a dog, as heartbreaking as it is, is made worthwhile by the many years of happiness they bring. Cal taught me more about love and loyalty than a lot of the humans I've met have and for that I'll always be grateful.
But for now, the kitchen is strangely quiet. There is a space where Cal's basket used to be, which may as well be a ninety foot chasm and there's nobody to feed the fatty scraps of meat from a Sunday roast to. We miss him, obviously. But we have so many memories as a result of his life with us.
Yes, there are some moments that we remember forever. Thanks to Cal, I have more of those happy memories than I can count.
Sleep tight, boy. xx