When I was smaller than I am now, and more shy, I lived mostly in my head, drawing vivid pictures of a small world of my own; somehow more real than concrete and windswept trees and school books filled with my careful, hopeful work. The companions of my imagination came to life and ran alongside me as I walked, or slept at my feet on long car journeys when there was nothing outside the window but motorway and rain. They had long red coats or scruffy whiskered faces; pleasant aloofness or eagerness and bounce, and they stepped from the photo plates of the books I pored over, and into my mind. Most important to me, though, was that they were never completely perfect; simply, in their flaws and lifelike characters, perfect just to me.
Then, suddenly, I was 27, and my imagination had become tangled in the fronds of degrees and decisions and the minutiae of adult life, which had taken the outer world and pushed it further into my consciousness with every passing year. I went, pursuing more of this serious adult life, to Morocco, and to the mountains, where the forest and the monkeys crept under my skin and the village, unbidden, appointed itself as my home. There, in the unapologetic sunlight of late summer mornings, I met the new cast of my inner world, inhabiting the external world, where everyone could see. They came in a whirlwind of barking and frantic, waving tails, falling over themselves to be noticed, and darting away if I noticed them too much. I was new, and they are careful with their trust.
Days passed and became a year, and I returned to the mountains and the dog pack again, falling into the scrappy, jumping tumult of ears and noses and hot, dusty fur. They knew me now, and I was surrounded, and happy, my feelings catching in my throat as a laugh. They scattered as I walked through them, separate animals coming into focus from the blur as I scratched their heads in greeting. I sat in the shade, my back against the cold stone of the house, and watched them settle to their afternoon’s concerns. They snapped at flies and dozed in the wild sweep of daisies in the yard and trembled excitedly outside the kitchen in case of falling crumbs, and two of them joined me in the tingling shade, panting with the heat but sitting very close, just to be sure I knew they were there.
I am here again now, chasing my dreams in the forests that feel like home. In the mornings, I squint into the sun as it climbs over the mountains and over our roof, resting my hand on the delicate paw that always finds its way – reassuring, possessive – on to my lap. I occasionally shift to brush away flies, and the long ears next to me twitch; irritated, but too sleepy to move. The others stretch, finding the first sunny corners, and scratch idly as they wait for breakfast. This is the quiet time, and I put the way it feels in a box in my head, wanting to keep it safe. In the evenings, I carry the heavy, satisfying tiredness of a day outside, and the smiling faces winding around my legs welcome me home. They are excitable now, the heat of the day vanishing into dusk and giving them new energy. As dinner steams on the table, they congregate at the door, alert for any sign that the food is for them as well. When I make my way to bed, their shapes, curled in the darkness or waiting hopefully under foot, fill my chest with a bittersweet ache of belonging. I am not here all the time, and soon I will have to leave. When I am back in the concrete and windswept trees and my notebooks full of the lists of adult life, they will be with me. It took years and miles and changes of plan, but there are dogs in my imagination again.
This is for Cheezy, Rocky, Ruby, Smelly, Billy, Linda, Nipper, Bruno, Blackie and Ffion, who bring me happiness by trusting me, and by loving me in return. It is also for Tony and Chocolate, to whom we’ve had to say goodbye.