I shifted a chest of drawers that hadn’t been moved for years, and found an old photograph lying among the dust and the cobwebs behind it. I picked it up and studied it, fascinated by the alien light of the mid-1980s. A summer meadow. A terrier ring at a dog and ferret show. And there I am, a stranger to my present self, crouching beside a tidy Jack Russell terrier bitch. She has liquid, almond-shaped eyes set in a black-and-tan face. The well-proportioned body is piebald black and white. Smooth coated. Her tail is undocked, the blood-blackened bone showing through the sparse white hairs at the tip. She is looking with calm, confident interest at something off-camera.
People often commented on what they saw as kindness in her face. My mother often expressed the far-fetched belief that she was a Christian. Indoors, she had perfect good manners. She was sensitive and you could command her with your eyes. The day I met her, she jumped up on my lap and I immediately picked her up and flung her away. I was used to Alsatians and was stupidly contemptuous of the little dog. She never asked to come up on my lap again. She was quiet and watchful and careful not to get under anyone’s feet. She never asked for food, though thirst would drive her to bark at the kitchen tap. She was fastidious as a cat in her cleanliness and when doing her business. She had one terrible, overriding, maniacal vice, however. She lived to kill.
My brother-in-law got her from a Dartmoor farmer who had found her out foraging alone. My brother-in-law gave her to my brother and my brother gave her to me. Then, she looked about three years old. The first time I took her for a walk she killed a rat right in front of me. She chased it twice around a telegraph pole, caught it with a twisting leap, shook it to death, cast the corpse aside, then jogged on as if nothing had happened. Snuff ballet. From start to finish about two seconds. I’d never seen a terrier nail a rat before and I was astonished and impressed.
But a rat was nothing. Her bread and butter, or so she thought, was badger. In the early days of our acquaintance, I spent a lot of time lying on the ground with my head as far down a badger hole as it would go, shouting myself hoarse, anxiously alive to the fact that the fine for disturbing a badger set was £2,000. Whether she was what a badger-digger would call ‘self-entering’ or whether she had been carefully trained, it was impossible to know. But she was the consummate badger-digger’s dog. Once she’d found a badger deep in his set, she’d bark excitedly in its face all afternoon, presumably in the mistaken belief that I would shortly be digging quickly and illegally down to the rumpus in order to put a violent end to Mr Brock’s life.
We couldn’t go on like that. So on our walks we tried to forget Piggy and concentrate our minds instead on bushing bunny rabbits in the gorse. She took to it. She had no deft killing technique with a rabbit and it was best all round and saved time if I did the despatching for her. It wasn’t the catching them that was difficult, it was lugging the bloody things home afterwards. She carried her tail like a flagpole and the tip became shredded by thorns and gorse needles and bled so copiously that she would be covered in her own blood. Her ears tore and bled easily too. No wonder they used to crop ears as well as the tail in the old days. About once a week I’d have a careful look under her thin coat and extract any tics using the burning tip of a roll-up and tweezers.
For several years I spent all of my spare time in her company catching rabbits on long walks. She was a proper earth dog, though. An indefatigable tunneller drawn irresistibly to badger sets. Bushing rabbits above ground, though it satisfied her desire to kill, was in all conscience a sinful waste of her talents. One sunny day an adder bit her in the armpit and she succumbed to the venom aged about seven.
We called her Bo. I must have shouted that name down badger holes a million times. Knowing that bitch terrier was one of the joys of my life. I studied the photograph and wondered with shame how I had failed to think of her lately, and how I had become estranged from the person crouching next to her. To make small amends, I put the photograph in a little tin frame and put it on the mantelpiece.