A Dog’s Life

The story of Max

Columba Palumbus, Going Postal

He was born in the maze of kennels and lean-tos in the back garden of an unassuming end terrace on the outskirts of Aldershot. The house was owned and inhabited by a strange and mysterious friend of my father, known to me as Uncle Mickey, a rat and mole catcher by trade. Mickey was a terrier man, and had been controlling pests on our farm since before my family moved to the area. He always had a pack of scruffy looking dogs following him around like chicks buzzing around a mother hen, and he had his own line of Patterdales going back 10 generations or more. My mother was very taken with these little black dogs, each with their own individual quirks and characters, and having recently lost her own dog Bella, set her sights on one of Mickeys as a replacement. So it came to pass that a few months later we found ourselves huddled round a whelping box in a dingy shed, gazing down on six sleeping puppies, and a seventh one staring intently back at us.

Max was the runt of the litter, a good few inches shorter than the others at the eight week stage. With his rough curls, stubby snout and round body, there wasn’t much of a resemblance between him and what we knew of typical Patterdales, but it didn’t really matter to us. He came home with us that very day, the princely sum of £25 having changed hands, and spent the entire journey biting my brother’s fingers. I can’t recall much of the first few weeks, save for the fact that mother refused point blank my father’s wish that Max be kept outside with the other dogs, and so he lived in a cardboard box under the kitchen table. In a household as full of life as ours, with 6 of us inside and numerous dogs, cats, horses, chickens and ferrets outside, our new puppy spent most of the day sleeping, with occasional bouts of eating and lounging around in any shafts of sunlight that happened to be within his reach. He didn’t chew much, he never played with anything other than a ball of rags, he was house-trained in a few days, and if you didn’t see him, you’d struggle to know he was there. A model puppy, or so you would think, for it was only when he reached adulthood that the true Max revealed himself.

Columba Palumbus, Going Postal

Now, mum refused point blank to have him neutered, despite my father’s protestations. This turned out to be a bad idea, for young Max turned into the randiest, smelliest, most disgusting little rascal of a dog I have ever known. Woe betide any of our other dogs that came anywhere near him, for  despite his miniature size, he would attempt to mount them almost immediately, never getting anywhere close, but god loves a trier. In fact, he was never successful, and we suspected he could well have been seedless. When he wasn’t thinking with his nether regions, he was using them to mark out his territory, Never has such a small dog dominated such a large area. Any upright surface soon belonged to him, it didn’t matter whether it was inside the house or outside. The only other thing Max had any interest in was killing rats, and in this he excelled. He was totally undaunted by anything, and would happily crawl into walls, under floors and down into burrows with the single mindedness of a berserker. In fact, as a ratter, he was so effective that we are almost certain he eradicated all of the rodents around the farm and between him and the rag tag collection of semi feral cats that called the farm home, prevented any newcomers from taking up residence so comprehensively that I can’t say I ever saw a rat there again.

Despite his faults, Max was a loveable rogue. He adored my mum and followed her about constantly. If you ever stood still for any period of time, he would shuffle backwards into your legs and rest himself on your feet, in an effort to keep his testicles from touching the floor. In (very) occasional bouts of cuteness, he would snuggle up to you and gently snort into your ear like a little pig. He was a happy little soul, totally at ease with himself, never aggressive like some terriers can be (with the notable exception of when rats were around), and reasonably well behaved, providing he didn’t sense a local bitch in season, for there was little hope of controlling him when his libido took over, and he had to be locked in a barn for his own safety.

Columba Palumbus, Going Postal

I remember once, I decided to take him for a walk on the common that lay between our place and the outskirts of the village. I wasn’t ever supposed to let him off the lead, but he loved to run in big circles if there was an open space suitable for the purpose, so I would often take him to one particular place and let him go. It had a brook on one edge that flowed into the village and disappeared under ground before the houses started. So there I was, having slipped the lead off, and watching him tearing around and around, in and out of the gorse and broom when all of a sudden, he vanished. I ran over to where I last saw him on the edge of the brook, calling his name and whistling, but to no avail. I must have searched for a couple of hours before giving in, and so I steeled myself as I returned home empty handed to tell my mother that I’d lost her dog. Father was summoned, and the whole family was sent out to scour the area. It was dark when we all came back, still without Max, and a restless night was spent, before dad went out before first light, this time with his own dogs. He was sat in the kitchen drinking a cup of tea when we all got up, a bedraggled terrier looking very sorry for himself in the cardboard box under the table at his feet. Turns out, he had strayed too close to the bank, tumbled into the water and crawled to the edge, which was slightly undercut and had hidden him from view. As he had never barked or made any sound louder than a whisper, our calls and whistles went unanswered. There he had stood, knee deep in water, unwilling to move for some reason, and it wasn’t until dads spaniel Jess had dived in and found him there, that it became apparent what had happened, He never went near running water again after that day, and I wasn’t allowed to walk him off the lead either.

I don’t know what it was about that dog and water, but there was another occasion when I was rudely awoken on Christmas day by furious banging and crashing coming from downstairs. Thinking we may have been in the midst of an incompetent burglary, I shouted out, rousing the rest of the house and rushed downstairs to be confronted by the shocking sight of an inch of water lapping at the bottom step, and my dad, dressed only in his pants and a pair of wellingtons,  struggling to turn the stopcock under the kitchen sink. Seized solid, it was absolutely hopeless, so the fire brigade was called to turn off the main at the end of the drive. All the time, Max sat in his sopping wet box, paralysed with fear, and refused point blank to move until all the flood water had gone. It seems a pipe in the outhouse had become frozen and burst, filling the downstairs with icy water, sometime after we had all gone to bed, and the silly dog had just laid there whilst the water rose around him. Although that Christmas day was ruined, and it took ages to clean up the water, it wasn’t all bad, as the insurance company eventually paid out and we got new carpets throughout and a new three piece suite to boot. My sister also ended up getting the phone number of one of the firemen (and going out with him for a number of years), who coincidentally all went back to the station with a couple of brace of pheasants each by way of compensation.

Columba Palumbus, Going Postal

As Max matured, he began to move around less, and would spend his days sitting in the yard or in the kitchen watching the world go by. He became less inclined to chase females, and his famously large territory dwindled to a few outlying areas of the farm. He began to prefer his own company, and even became a recluse, taking himself off to his box under the kitchen table to doze the day away. Even his passion for killing rats waned, and the intensity of his hunting slowed, and he was more reluctant to get dirty doing it. At the age of seven or eight, it wasn’t uncommon for him to spend 23 hours of every day lounging around or asleep. There was something not right about this dog, supposedly in the prime of his life acting more like an aged house cat.

Our vet was a family friend, a good man who really loved animals, and so when he came to call about one of the horses, he was only too happy to take a look at the dog. It was obvious to him that something was amiss, so he was booked into the clinic the next day for a full examination and scan. Mother’s fears were realised when the vet reported a suspected brain tumour. Options were either the uncertain outcome of expensive surgery, or to let nature take its course, and ease his suffering with painkillers. It wasn’t an easy decision for my mother. We could ill afford the expense at that time, and pet insurance wasn’t really a thing back then. Seemingly, poor Max’s fate was sealed, and so we came to terms with the fact that sooner rather than later, we would be saying goodbye.

He really knew how to pick his moment did Max. It was the day before mums 50th birthday, we had a big surprise party planned and had been having a nightmare trying to organise everything and keep the secret. As had become the norm, he had some food first thing with the pills mixed in, and been let out to do his business. After a while when he hadn’t come back in, my brother went out to see where he was. Sadly, he found him collapsed a few steps from the back door. He was still breathing, but he couldn’t stand and didn’t seem to be aware of the world around him anymore, He was carried back inside the house, but soon succumbed after fitting for a few moments. We buried him that afternoon next to his predecessors in the old orchard, now just an overgrown wild area in one corner of the farm. He looked so peaceful wrapped in his blanket, but I couldn’t bear to watch him get covered over so I went home and cried in private.

Columba Palumbus, Going Postal

Growing up on a farm, the realities of life and death are apparent from an early age, and he was far from the first pet I had seen come and go, but Max was such a character, his death had a far more profound effect on me at my time of life (13 years old) than I thought possible. We went ahead with the surprise party, but mums heart wasn’t in it, and it fizzled out long before a 50th birthday party should.

Mickey appeared unannounced a few days later, as usual trailing a multitude of terriers as made his way across the yard. He had something tucked into his jacket and was struggling to conceal it as he knocked on the door and let himself in. Inside his old donkey jacket was a little ball of fluff, an eight or nine week old patterdale puppy, which jumped out as he sat down at the table and started tearing madly around the kitchen floor. What a little terror she was, a bundle of pure energy and absolutely uncontrollable, Over a coffee, he explained that she was the last of a litter and needed a home, and thought we may be interested. Mum said yes without hesitation, never one to let things lie. That was the magic of Uncle Mickey, somehow he knew about the sudden void in our lives, maybe it was some sort of sixth sense where his dogs were concerned. I don’t know how, but mum always maintains that it was a parting gift from Max, Instantly in love again, it was without question she would stay with us. We called this tiny tornado Bramble, and she became a very much different dog to Max, but that is a tale for another time.

Columba Palumbus, Going Postal

© Columba Palumbus 2021

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