Each evening around 10pm I set off for a last slow walk with the dogs. They all enjoy it, splashing through the mud and unconcerned about the dark, given their eyesight is so much better than ours. Bella, the matriarch of my Labrador family, is always determined to join in despite her aching hips, slowly hopping to her favourite corners of grass. There is, and always was, no hurry and it was up to her what she wished to do.
Returning inside she would lie down next to her granddaughters Stella and Freya. It seemed a better option all around rather than her previous determined approach to haul herself upstairs to come and sleep with us. As she got lighter with age and frailty, I had sometimes carried her up and down though this was not a totally happy solution for either of us.
One evening at the end of last week however she couldn’t come out and drink in puddles, looking around at this beautiful dim landscape. Her wonderful heart has given out and this major part of my life has gone. Even knowing it was coming has not prepared me for the huge loss perhaps because she gave so much love. Bella has been a calm, loving centre of life for the whole family and for those who work and live here, as she pottered slowly across a path, listening and smiling, her eyes knowing my thoughts.
Unlike most of us, dogs never seem to complain. They look up and wag their tails and the transparency of their behaviour creates such trust that I am not sure we match up to it.
Just over seven years ago Bella had a litter of puppies: ten amazing little crawling, nuzzling squeaking puppies. She was a wonderful mother, ever patiently caring for her babies. It definitely turned her coat whiter and, after 10 to 12 weeks, the puppies began to find new homes with various friends. Two of them, Alfie and Scooby Doo, stayed at Highclere with us. Many did not go far. Sally in the gift shop, for example, has Barney, Jo who lives across the fields has Molly and one little girl named Finse went to a girlfriend, Karine, and began a new life in the world of Viking Cruises.
A series of illustrated children’s books about Finse and her travels with Karine followed with Mummy Bella ever in the background. (The money raised from the books goes to a children’s education charity.) Bella adored staying with Finse and Karine. It was rather more peaceful than her other home here with all our other dogs and, in true Nordic (Viking) fashion, she enjoyed a little salmon now and again with Karine which she probably found much tastier than the turmeric and olive oil I would add to her food.
Kissed by her granddaughters Stella and Freya, as well as half over balanced by them, she had company and amusement to the last but then Labradors adore people. Everyone stopped to cuddle her and have a word. My little nephew’s idea of happiness was just to sit with her and stroke her for as long as possible. Could she speak? Well yes in her own fashion. Did she listen? Yes – far better than most of us. She observed what was around her, accepted the compromises of living with humans and gave far more than she asked for.
I will so miss the familiar figure, the kind eyes and her simply being there. I am lucky to have known such a special dog and grateful to be living with her children and grandchildren.