Five-Minute Memoir: Veronica Henry recalls the day she inherited a shaggy dog


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The Independent Culture

The tea table groaned with thickly-buttered fruit loaf and buttermilk scones topped with homemade raspberry jam. Mrs P, the "woman that did", had been up since five feverishly baking. Mrs P, who had laid out the body the week before with painstaking care, was loyal to the end, even though she had often found herself paid in swathes of Irish linen from my grandmother's bottom drawer. And now Mrs Henry's funeral was the highlight of her year, with all the local Monaghan luminaries attending: priests, doctors, lawyers…

Amid the chaos sat Sprite, her gaze baleful at this interruption to her routine. A less aptly-named creature you couldn't find: she was two solid stone of Jack Russell, shaped like a brick and in full moult, her hairs apparent on every black trouser leg in the room. The mourners would all be taking a piece of her home whether they liked it or not.

"The dog knows, you know," wailed Mrs P as she rushed the kettle from the Aga to wet the tea. "The dog knows…"

The drinking that afternoon was fierce. My husband was dispatched to run the incapable home in my grandmother's Mini. He demurred, anxious that he'd overdone it and would be stopped by the Guards. "Sure," the bank manager reassured him, "you'll want to have drink on your breath or they'll think you're on drugs." Sprite followed him out to the car, perplexed to find someone else at the wheel of her mistress's chariot, wondering if perhaps the answer to the mystery lay elsewhere.

Ever since I can remember, my grandmother was surrounded by a flotilla of Jack Russells, a moving sea of white and tan fur that smelt of digestives at best. She bred them herself: Coco, Jane, Susie… To the uninitiated, they were identical, stumpy-legged and stumpy-tailed, but she adored each and every one of them. Sprite was the last of the line, and the fact that no arrangement had been made for her was testament to my grandmother's fierce belief that she was in some way immortal; the way she scoffed at the cancer that finally squeezed the last drop of breath from her lungs.

The will was clear about everything else. The exquisite Georgian silver, the Waterford, the Lalique all went to the appropriate recipient, but there was no mention of the dog. As the funeral party dispersed, I eyed the forlorn and solitary little bundle with a slightly sinking heart.

I didn't like dogs. Even if I had liked them, I would have chosen almost any other breed over a Jack Russell. A red setter, a wolfhound, a dalmatian – something elegant and glamorous; a fashion accessory. Yet as I met Sprite's eye in a blur of grief and Paddys, I knew it was my duty. I knew it was what my grandmother would have wanted. I had to take her home with me.

Ihugged her biscuity bulk on the drive to the airport, trying not to mind the white hair on my black velvet coat. She came home as excess baggage, relegated to the hold. I didn't like to think of her bewilderment on that journey. I was determined she should be loved as much as she had been, even though I was finding it less than easy, largely due to the insidious farts she released with clockwork regularity.

Yet I came to adore her. I came to love the fact that she gave me a reason to get out of bed on a Sunday to go stomping through the woods, instead of lolling about with the papers. During dinner parties she would sit bolt upright in a nearby armchair, stiff with disapproval at the raucous goings on, looking down her snout at my uproarious guests.

When I was pregnant, she slid under the duvet and snuggled herself against my bump, a miniature radiator helping to incubate my unborn child.

Occasionally she would make a bid for freedom – she had been used to the run of the fields, the sweet scent of a dairy farm, not the traffic-heavy streets of a Midlands town. Once the police brought her home: she rode in the back of the car, regal, proud, defiant. She was loyal, faithful, loving – and flatulent to the end.

After eight years, old age took its toll and the day came to put her down. The vet slid his needle into her leg and the ice-cold anaesthetic froze her stout little heart into stillness.

I cried my own heart out, but the romantic in me, the Celtic romantic, imagined that she was reunited with the mistress she had loved at last, that my grandmother would clap her hands and Sprite would come running, that they would stride out across the endless green fields, together again.

Veronica Henry's novel 'The Long Weekend' (Orion) is out now in paperback