Gussie is the name of a grumpy and ill-natured llama, her coat largely white and somewhat unkempt, and much given to aggressive expectoration. When there’s corn in a bucket, it has been her habit greedily to spit other llamas away, not because she wants corn but to stop them getting any.
And Gussie is also the name of an entirely imaginary creature — another llama, but who can make phone calls, surf the internet, and send emails and texts. This Gussie has been a keen if censorious student of human nature, a particular student of the faults and foibles of my partner, Julian, and me.
The fictional Gussie grew from the real one, taking such distinct shape over many years that by the end there has been virtually no connection between them. Their gradual divergence has taught me something not so much about camelids as about humans.
My first experience of anthropomorphism was as a toddler, with my little brother, Roger. Sometimes, when (say) he or I would bang our knees on an inconveniently placed chair leg and start to cry, our mother would scold the chair leg: ‘Naughty chair’ — and sometimes give it a smack. This playacting would cheer Roger and me up no end, and we’d stop crying, join in the scolding, and soon forget the pain. There was, I remember, one especially naughty chair.
Sometimes, too, if we were rough with the cat, Mum would impersonate the cat, who would seem to protest in a strange cat-like little voice — and even to cry — making us feel guilty.
I learned the mind split that enables us to know that something is unreal, and yet suspend disbelief and immerse ourselves in the fiction. The reasons may be quite various.
I cannot remember when Gussie began to intervene in my partner’s and my relationship, or express her views on some of our friends — on questions of housekeeping, on politics (especially Ukip, which she supported) and the world generally (she had a high regard for Putin) — but it soon caught on.
The real Gussie, of course, remained mute. As Thornton Wilder observes in The Bridge of San Luís Rey, llamas will often wander over to humans talking among ourselves and stand very close, listening intently, for all the world as though they were about to contribute some wan comment of their own to the discussion — but they never quite do. Gussie never did either, but my partner and I would report to each other what we claimed she had said.
It was often critical. ‘Gussie mentioned to me in confidence, this morning, that she feels you drank a little too much last night at dinner at Willem and Natasha’s: she feared you were about to start slurring your words…’
‘Gussie’s just texted me. She saw the bedroom curtains still closed at 8.30. She asks me to remind you that you’ve work to do.’
‘Gussie’s been pawing through back numbers of The Spectator. She suspects you’re banging on too much about the Tories, and thinks readers might like to hear more about the llamas.’
‘Gussie’s view — and her email was quite unprompted — is that you put me down a bit sharply in front of our guests on Saturday. As she points out, you know I won’t answer back in company.’
Her application to become a £3 Labour party supporter (during a brief flirtation with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid) really did happen. We helped her set up a GMail internet address, lamarfamilydaughter. She was disappointed when her application was suspended due to her not being on the voters’ roll; but the BBC came to film her in her field and she enjoyed the attention.
Forgiving reader, as you can see, your columnist is at it again, wobbling between fiction and reality. The truth is that Gussie became a slight but not insignificant figure in our lives, our banter, and our occasional reproach. Slowly her character built in our minds. We would even discuss her views. She helped us, too, to say gently through her interventions what might have been rather harsh if addressed directly, one to another. Indeed we’d often criticise her for her lack of diplomacy.
Gussie died last week. I blame myself a bit. We had moved her and her three fellow camelids down to the lower field, where I did notice a yew tree’s foliage that had advanced to a point where, if a llama stretched its neck over the barbed wire, it might just be able to reach; but the yew had no berries (these are the most poisonous) and I’d seen the llamas nibble a bit of foliage before without ill effect. I resolved to shear the yew back the next morning.
The next morning Gussie was dead. I found her, still warm in the frost because a camelid’s coat is a wonderful insulator, and hoped so much it had been quick. I had to organise the dragging of her body on the end of a rope, up from the place where she had lain down to die. The ‘fallen stock’ man said it was the best way, but I couldn’t look. The other three llamas were incredibly distressed, and still are.
We hauled her into the back of a lorry, where there was already a dead cow, and off she went down the drive. It was awful.
Look, I know it’s silly. I know she never did say any of the things we reported her as saying. I do realise as I tuck into my roast lamb that this sentimentality about an animal you happen to know defies all reason. And I accept, anyway, that we didn’t really know Gussie.
‘It was greed that got her in the end,’ said my partner.
‘Oh no! Not another celebrity death,’ said Simon, Julian’s colleague in London.
Unkind, both of them. Gussie’s half–sister Vera, who has never before expressed an opinion, has asked me to speak to Simon and Julian most severely. In the years ahead, I begin to think that Vera may have more to say.