There is a hole in the world, and it presses its nose to the back of my knee to let me know it is there.
It is looking at me when I awake, it watches me eat breakfast, it is downcast when I do not put on my walking shoes but sit instead at my desk. It comes to tell me when it’s lunchtime, dinnertime, biscuit time and cuddle time, and it settles down at my feet after dinner. Once or twice, I think I have heard it fart.
When I cut a slice of cheese, and there is a little wonky bit, the hole stands at my side and expects to have it dropped into its mouth. The hole stares, trembling, at the cupboard where it knows both treats and brushes are stored, in an agony to know which will be produced. But now neither is forthcoming.
When the postman clicks the front gate to deliver the mail, the hole explodes with a fury that only I can hear, and which ends in a satisfied harrumph as it lays, on guard, at the foot of the stairs. At night the hole jumps up onto the bed, and settles itself against my feet where I feel it yawn, as wide and as deep as an ocean, as I turn off the light.
The hole is a shadow, forever behind me. Sometimes there is a glimpse from the corner of my eye, but he slips away to investigate a slimy watering can or to see if there is any half-buried rawhide it had forgotten about. And I remember, suddenly, to check down the back of the sofas because that’s where the damp, half-chewed piece of animal was usually stuffed.
Then I decide not to look, because I do not want to exhume it from the place where he had so carefully placed it.
I go for a walk, brisker than it has been for a year, earplugs in, thinking about something else. The hole drifts away behind me, distracted by a smell or a bee, and I think perhaps this time I can hide.
Then it thunders up behind me, clutching a stick longer than itself, and hits me in the back of the knee with it on the way past saying “LET’S PLAY!”
After an autumn gale, I see broken branches on the ground and have to tell the hopeful-looking hole that no, he won’t be able to carry it all the way home. And it never, ever, lets me out of its sight.
I cry, and the void does not bark and bounce around as it once did, demanding to know who made Mummy unhappy. It just looks at me sadly. I sing and dance (with difficulty) with my daughter, who still expects it, and the hole does not join in.
The things that once drove him, and me, both mad have gone, too. I am now allowed to mash potatoes, hammer nails, use a whisk. I empty the dishwasher, I separate a saucepan from its lid, and there is no whimpering, what-the-hell-woman sound of consternation. I like the return of normal, human sanity, but I howl for the collie wobbles I am used to.
The 5-year-old and I talk to him every morning. She has decided he goes on adventures at night. The first time, he went to Patagonia for the patting. Then Kurdistan, for the lemon curd. Last night he visited Dalmatia where there were at least 106 of them, and tonight he’s off to Botswana, because he does like sniffing bottoms.
The night it happened, I sat with him til dark. Going indoors and locking the door while he stayed outside was the bit that felt cruellest, the bit that made me scream. The hole stood outside the door, waiting to be let in.
The absence once walked the entire length of the River Thames, doing 20 miles a day, eating steak every night, and sausages every morning for breakfast. It may have produced the finest travel writing the Mirror has ever published. Now it doesn’t go anywhere much, but stays at my feet where it will always remain, even when another dog comes along.
The hole is too big, you see. It was too big to carry when it could no longer walk, and too big to bury when its time was up, although I did both. The hole is big enough to split in two and still seem no smaller, dividing its time between me and the grandparents where there was a second bowl, more biscuits, and an unending river of gravy.
What once filled that gap in our lives taught me to love again, and to let myself be loved. It taught my daughter to walk, to empathise, and to play kindly. What is now an absence once came and sat on my foot, and chose me. “You smell like biscuits,” he said. “You’ll do.” He did not know that he was my defibrillator, and I did not thank him until he broke my heart again.
Even when he was four stone, he still sat on my foot. He sheltered between my legs like a wolfpup when we got caught in the rain, and he sat on my mother’s lap and put his arms around her neck for a kiss.
It is not all sadness. There were many great and noble victories.
In the nine and a half years that I have been working from home, the postman never slaughtered us. The lawnmower never minced his tennis balls, no matter how many times he provoked its murderous intentions, and Mummy learned to cry silently, mash potatoes in private, and wipe the custard jug right to the bottom with her finger, so he could have it.
There were doggy bags. One, after a terrible restaurant mistake, contained an entire beef Wellington. There were holidays built around him, four cars in which he rode like a king on the back seat because he felt the boot was beneath him, and exciting culinary adventures courtesy of the butcher’s back room.
As I write, there are six footballs of varying ages and structural integrity lying about the garden, waiting to be kicked for a boy who’ll never chase them. “Most dogs are happy with one,” I would grump as I climbed back out of a ditch in a field miles from home, where he’d spotted one, abandoned and in need of his care and attention.
We may be the only family in history that has adopted other people’s deflated, semi-rotten footballs.
Billy was the centre of my world for four years, and when a baby came along he shared the space with her. He sat beside her at mealtimes, obviously, but lay beside her when she slept, barked when she was crying about something important, and stayed silent when it was nothing to worry about. He kissed her gently, played with her gently, and let her cover him in ribbons and hair clips without batting an eye.
In a too-short span he became an old man, creaky in the joints and less inclined to harass pigeons. He watched as my daughter began yelling “BUGGER OFF!” at them on his behalf, and we all knew his presence was not forever.
Now it is that absence which fills our lives: a vacuum into which I can cry and no-one wants to know whose throat to rip out for making me sad. Despite the bloodthirstiness of the threats he issued to everyone who had the temerity to walk past our house, or indeed any bit of the world where I happened to sit down, he never bit or growled, not once.
Billy was a good boy. And when it came to the end, that was all I could say that I knew he would understand as we took the pain away from him, and took it for ourselves. He licked my hand, I kissed his nose, he sighed and then was gone.
There is a hole in the world now, but it is filled with fluff, and hugs, and cuddles. It is a good hole, the best that a hole could possibly be, but several times a day it comes up behind me and touches its nose to the back of my knee, just to let me know that it’s there.