Floyd, the Vegan Dog.
Somerset in the nineteen fifties was a good place to be born. My family home was a terraced council house that stood on the edge of acres of meadow. My first memory is of looking out of my front facing bedroom window onto the fields of bright yellow buttercups. Across from our house was a tree that was home to a little owl that mum says used to hoot throughout the night. In front of our garden was a small road and then the fields fringed with hedges of hawthorn, blackthorn and brambles. In the autumn the estate children spent hours picking the blackberries that grew in the hedges. We sold them to housewives or shops for a few pennies, then went home covered in purple stains with torn dresses and scratched hands.
To get into the fields children dug holes under the wire fence that surrounded the hedgerows but it was still a scramble to get through the prickly hedge. Spikes of blackthorn pierced our clothes and painfully caught our hair. The struggle through the hedge was worth it. Once inside the fields there was another kingdom away from the concrete council estate with its wide grey pavements and identical homes.
Seasonally the fields were awash with colour from wave upon wave of wild flowers. As well as an ocean of buttercups there were tall mauve cuckoo pint flowers growing in the boggy soil and there was a little orchard that filled with fragrant cowslips in the spring. I would bend down to smell the scented flowers in the orchards tall damp grass.
Most of the time local children were allowed out to roam the fields away from the busy life of the estate. On Sundays I would take a packed lunch of sandwiches, fruit and orange juice and put it in my school satchel. Then it was possible with parental permission, to stay out in the fields all day. Sometimes with a school friend I would attempt to walk to Cheddar. We never got there across the miles of fields but we would straddle the fences and jump over ditches that in those days were full of stickleback fish and newts. There was a derelict farmhouse on the edge of the fields and its garden was full of wild strawberries that we stopped to pick and eat. We pretended to be spies or private detectives as we walked depending on what we had watched on our parents new Sobel televisions.
Alongside the fields ran two lanes, Bower and Dunwear. Mum said that Bower Lane had been marched along by the Duke of Monmouth and his peasant army in 1685. They met their deaths at nearby Westonzoyland while trying to claim the crown from the King. Dunwear was mums favourite. Apple orchards lined the roads back then. The trees were standard size and covered in pink and green fruit which looked like they might have been drawn by the hands of children. There was a shop along the lane where sweets and orange ice lollies could be bought, and there was a house where the outside wall was clad in shells and shiny pebbles. Further along the lane horses grazed and just after that you could walk along the river. While my brother and I walked beside our mother Nancy, she would tell us about things we could do with our lives. One idea which seemed to be her favourite involved buying a big removal van kitted out with beds and hot water and driving away in it. Far past the council estate. Mum never mentioned who would pay for diesel or food but it remained an exciting possibility in our minds. When we were out shopping she would pick up things in stores like Woolworths or Timothy Whites and say “ This would be useful for when we move into the lorry”.
Before we were old enough for school our lives centred on the house, number forty three Moorland road. It was big and airy with windows at both ends of the sitting room. Sometimes moates of light cast rainbows onto the walls and mum said these could be fairies and that we should run and try to catch them. The back garden was huge. Dad sectioned it off to lawn, a vegetable patch and play area. He built a black picket fence around it on which he trained roses and put up a metal swing. As well as working twelve hour days at the post office supplies in Bridgwaters Bristol road, dad was secretary of the post office engineering union and still found time to grow many of our vegetables. The back garden was kept neat with rows of onions, cabbage, potatoes and fruit. Dad never learned to drive and rode his bicycle everywhere. Mum, David and I walked or caught the bus. The Sydenham estate was far away from the other end of town that was home to our Grandparents. On free days we would walk a few miles each way to their houses.
Maternal grandmother Grace lived with Grandfather Hubert. He liked to read about the ancient Britons, draw celtic patterns and hide in his shed. Grace was more of a people person, and an avid gardener. Her patch at the back of the house was always filled with the scent of flowers. A large pink camellia was planted by the back window and behind that were rows of rannuncula, pansies and London pride, with annuals and perrinials planted as far along as Huberts vegetable patch. Grace had many adult friends and at Christmas and holidays we were welcome in the house. Mum said at other times Grace wasn’t wild about children. It was to parental grandmother Edith May Heritage, nee Rawles house that we walked most often. Grandad Harold Heritage was chairman of the North ward labour party and politics dominated his conversation day and night. Edith was interested too but she doted on her grandchildren. On Saturdays I visited her on my own to luxuriate in her grandmotherly care. She kept a coal fire burning in the hearth and the flames that licked the logs were reflected in the brass fire fender. Up to this she would push the big settee and I would be invited to lie upon it. Gran would then wait on me with cakes, comics and other treats that were harder to come by at home. At Moorland road David seemed to be mums favourite. I felt this was apparent in our differing care. Although younger he went to bed later at night. Sometimes I was smacked. That would never happen to David.
I had a recurring dream of abandonment. Mum and David would drive past me in a bus. In the dream mum would say “ We’ll meet again one day”.
Between mum and I food was a bone of contention. Money was short because Dad was saving the deposit to buy a house. On Davids bedroom wall mum had pasted pictures of shop bought cakes we couldn’t afford, cut from magazines. Food waste was not tolerated. If I couldn’t eat my dinner it took on the proportions of a tragedy. Mums housekeeping money only allowed for cheap meat. Dad ate offal, faggots, tripe and chittling. He ate it cheerily with pickle. I couldn’t stomach meat. Mum cooked pale sausages that were burnt outside and raw in the middle. I couldn’t swallow them without huge gulps of water. Whilst Nancys baking was wonderful with chocolate or coffee cakes and raspberry buns, her boiled veg was watery and the potatoes made me retch. I was smacked once or twice for wasting an inedible dinner. Gran didn’t bake so much but her potatoes were creamy and vegetables well cooked. If I couldn’t eat all her dinners it was never any problem.
Mum liked to read ghost stories. One was about a haunting where the ghost of a nanny came back to kill real children. Her favourite book was a poltergeist tale about a haunting at a building called Borely Rectory. These ghost stories frightened me and I felt safer at Grans house than at home.
One lunch time when David and I were about to eat cornish pasty and chips, our aunt Dinah came to visit. Something seemed wrong about this. She rarely visited at midday. As we started to eat mum said conversationally “Your granny Heritage is dead”. Everything seemed to slow down. I looked at my brother who had paused with his fork in the air. My aunt was looking at me waiting for a reaction. This did not seem possible.
“You’re a liar” I spat at my waiting mother. I fled from the room and ran down the road. Tears streamed from my eyes as I pounded along the pavement. There would be no more comics by the open fire. No more cuddles or gentle encouragement. No more magical days alone with Granny. From now on it would be me being the odd one out. Ghostly stranglings and Borely Rectory. David being the golden boy at home and me alone. These were my thoughts as I ran to my cousins house. Granny had died from a stroke. We were not allowed to see her body although I asked. Instead mum said I could give a ring to be put on grannys finger in the coffin. I chose a square silver ring with a clear stone that I always wore and handed it to mum. She said she would pass it to grandad to do the honours. From that moment I became the outsider in the family. The child without a champion
Mum was always too busy to have friends. This meant that David and I did not have many either. Instead whilst running around outside I was befriended by the local dogs. In the sixties traffic was less and not everyone walked their dogs formally. Many people put them out of the house to wander around alone. These animals became my company. We would sit around in the sun together and if the older local boys tried to bully me my canine companions would run after them and nip at their heels. It would be wonderful to have a dog at home. She could be an ally in the house. I asked mum to ask dad if we could have one. The answer was a resounding no. Many years later I found out that when dad was a boy his mothers dog had been shot by a farmer and it had caused much upset in the house. This memory may have been a factor in his refusal. Dads word was law though, so there would be no dog in the house. No cats either. They would cost too much to feed. We were allowed other animals. Mum bought a hamster, tortoise and rabbit. One by one these animals died. Mum had put the hamster in a hutch in the garden where it died of cold. The hibernation of the tortoise failed and her shell filled up with maggots. My father put wire wool instead of bedding in the rabbits cage and he ate the wool and died. As a child I didn’t understand why my pets were dying. It instilled in me though a desire to treat all animals kindly. With gentleness, respect and infinite care. In the meantime until I left home these were the years without a dog.
By the time I brought my first dog home I was in my late teens. My parents had moved from the council estate and bought a home at the other end of town. Dads mum hadn’t lived to see this but they bought a house near to Harold. I left home at sixteen and went to work in a hotel in London but quickly decided that the city was not for me. Returning to the beautiful lanes and countryside of Somerset I bought a share in a house with a work collegue. The co-owner of my home was willing to accommodate a dog in the house. He also agreed to pay half of all the vets bills and dog food. A happy situation indeed. In the intervening years between childhood and buying a home I had become Vegan. The concept had been introduced to me by two women who had published some of my poetry in a journal they edited. In those days commercial vegan food was hard to find. At the time I was on a strict budget with a low paid job. I started to read books about nutrition and ecology. My mother was an avid reader of health books and she recommended some to me. I began to evolve a vegan diet. To keep costs down I bought in bulk and kept things simple. The main meal of the day became a dish of legumes, soya protein and vegetables. It had brown rice in it to supply fibre, vitamins B2 and B6. Yeast extract for B12, lentils for protein and vegetables for further vitamins and minerals. It was cooked from scratch every day. Thrown in a pan of water and left to simmer for an hour. It was more chemistry than recipe but it supplied nutrition at minimal cost. By now I was reading about animal rights and didn’t want cows to be killed to feed my dog. I decided that the new canine addition to the house would be vegan. I had never heard of dogs being fed a vegan diet but I had done my research and knew many animals could thrive on food without animal products. Dogs and humans both being mammals I believed my new dog could thrive without meat. With this in mind my workmate and I stocked up on rice, textured vegetable protein and legumes then went to find a dog to rehome.
Our first attempt to become dog carers was unsuccessful. We took a taxi to the local animal shelter but it was closed due to parvo virus. Disconsolate that my first attempt to adopt had been thwarted I moaned at length to the taxi driver. It turned out he had two collie cross bitches who were half sisters that he was trying to rehome. He drove us to a large council estate on the edge of a neighbouring town. At the door he was greeted by his wife and child. The woman was pregnant again and so wanted to rehome her dogs. As she spoke to us two young collie cross bitches ran through her door out into the front garden. They were both eighteen months old and black and white. Phoebe had lots of border collie in her breeding and sported a large white ruff. Her half sister Floyd was a collie crossed with spaniel and she came over to Chris and I to say hello. She stood in front of me and looked up into my face with solemn dark brown eyes. Then she went over to the taxi driver who had picked up her blue lead. Phoebe didn’t come over to us but stayed near her female owner. When both dogs had their leads on we walked around the block with them so we could decide which one to adopt. They were both charming and well mannered and we couldn’t decide between them. “why don’t you take them both home?” suggested the taxi driver. Chris and I did a quick calculation about the cost of extra food and finding we could afford to feed both dogs we took them home on the bus.
Home at this time was a small two bedroom terraced house on the way out of town. It had little gardens back and front with a lane at the rear backing onto an estate. There was no deposit needed for its purchase because the mortgage was one hundred per cent. It was the first time I’d had my own garden. Having watched my grandparents and father growing food I couldn’t wait to get started myself. The back garden was laid to lawn with a couple of rose bushes, a passion flower and a shed at the end of a path. I started to read books about herbs and herbal medicine. Chris dug up the lawn so I could plant fruit and veg. The bottom of the garden I kept for herbs. A local health food store sold them grown in pots. For a month I bought new herbs every day and planted them in the garden. one of my favourites was mint, I planted pepper, pineapple, ginger mint and more. I began to use these fresh organic herbs in my cooking everyday. A handful of chopped mint was often thrown into the dogs dinner.
The dogs and I ate the same thing every day. By now the rice meal had become our staple diet. This was whole, long grain brown rice, red split lentils, textured vegetable protein, yeast extract, mint, tumeric and organic vegetables. Many of which I grew in the garden. With more reading I learnt about soil types, plants, their diseases and pests. I planted dwarf fruit trees of apples, plums and pears. Thus on a limited income with some labour I managed to feed myself and two dogs without great expense.
Floyd and Phoebe were a pleasure to care for. Both were bright, intelligent dogs with a mischevious sense of humour. Phoebe received much attention when out walking. She gravitated towards people and basked in their admiration. Floyd was more reserved and hung back behind her sister. Truth told Floyd couldn’t be bothered with people. For whatever reason she wasn’t interested in humans. The exception being me. While Chris spent time walking both of them more often he would end up playing ball with Phoebe who liked to keep him out of trouble. Floyd would be off sniffing cow pats and other ghastly things in the fields. While beautiful Phoebe would fetch the ball and return home pristine white, Floyd would trail home from walks covered in cow dung, dead fish or slime from a swim in the pond. Worse she liked to urinate in the house, often on the carpets. It seemed to us over a period of time that Floyd felt eclipsed by Phoebe, the dog who attracted so much outdoor attention . We felt that Floyd was unhappy and we came to a decision to split them up. We had discovered that the reason the taxi driver had given the dogs away was that he knew Floyd was pregnant. He hadn’t bothered to say. We thought that no one would take on a pregnant dog so it was Floyd we kept and Phoebe we rehomed. Phoebe went to live with an elderly lady who wanted a companion for her existing dog. She had met Phoebe while we were walking with her and she lived by the river. She seemed kind and sensible and was happy to take Phoebe on.
With no one to compete with Floyd became more comfortable at home. She had given birth to four puppies just before Phoebe left and her puppies were large and strong. They were born one evening after a walk with Chris in the fields. Half way through her usual walking time Floyd took the lead in her mouth and guided Chris back home. Soon after she lay in her favourite place at home and her labour started. In a few hours she had produced four beautiful puppies, two bitches and two dogs. They were mainly black with little white bibs and paws. The biggest puppy was a bitch we called Castro. She grew quickly and liked to boss her mum. The smallest we called Che. He was sweet and gentle, fond of falling asleep on my lap.
One evening a knock on the door alerted us to the fact that Floyd had been run over. She had been safely ensconced in the back garden which was fenced all around and had a six foot high gate. A neighbour had seen her climb the gate like a cat and take herself out for an extra walk. She had only been out briefly when a car hit her at the end of our road. She crawled home with a fractured pelvis and could no longer feed her pups. We called the vet who came straight away. He attended to Floyd and gave us formula to feed the puppies. The pups lived with us for a few more weeks. We took them to Floyd one at a time because they were boisterous and she needed time to heal. Eventually we found homes for them. People asked us what we fed their mum on as they were the biggest puppies for their age that their new carers had ever seen. It was sad to let them go. By then Floyd and I were the best of friends. The house was small and so were my finances so they were better off rehomed, but many years later when beautiful Floyd had died I wished I had kept at least one of her offspring.
Floyd and I were close. One afternoon she saved my life. We were taking our usual walk in the fields near the house. It was towards evening and the sun had begun to set over the resovoir . The farmer who owned the fields kept cows there and didn’t use much pesticide. In the spring and summer the meadows held a profusion of flowers. Walking through the yellow and pink carpet of buttercups, clover and cuckoo pint in the dusk I decided to take a short cut to another field by jumping over a deep but narrow rhyne. I called to Floyd to do the same but she was reluctant. Taking a run at the ditch I tried to launch myself over it but instead or reaching the far side bank I landed in the water. It was freezing cold and the rhyne seemed to have no bottom. One of my boots came off as I struggled to grab the vegetation at the edge of the ditch. The plants just broke off in my hand. There was nothing I could use as a lever to haul myself up onto the bank. A fleeting thought of drowning crossed my mind but suddenly Floyd was there. She came to the edge of the rhyne bracing her shoulders and staying near me so I could grab her ruff just long enough to give myself a hold to get up onto the bank. I pulled myself out of the water and retrieved my boot. Once she saw I was safe Floyd became furious with me. She grabbed my wringing wet sleeve and marched me home via the most direct route she could find through the remaining fields. She refused to let go of my sleeve until we were back in the house with the front door shut. Clearly she thought I was incapable of looking after myself.
This was my first glimpse of what I used to think of as her superior intelligence. I decided to teach her lots of human words to make the most of our communication. I taught her all the names of her toys and the vegetables I put in her dinner. I would hold things up “ Look Floyd it’s your bouncy ball” or “It’s a carrot for your dinner”. I had read about someone who had tried to teach a monkey complex language. The monkey was a mother with a baby. Although the mother wasn’t that interested in what the human had to say the baby monkey started to learn human words. I knew it was possible for verbal communication to be understood between species so I spent hours talking to Floyd about everything and anything. At one time I was very interested in my garden. One afternoon having decided to plant seeds I thought Floyd might like to help me. Kneeling down putting runner bean seeds in a trench I couldn’t reach the trowel. “Floyd will you help me, the trowels on the path, can you fetch it here?”. Floyd seized upon the trowel, ran over to me and dropped it in the bean trench. I gave her a big cuddle. “well done sweetie, you’re such a clever girl” Floyd loved to join in. Fetching small packets of seeds or the trowel became the gardening game. One night after we had been planting broad bean seeds I went to her basket to pick up her blanket to wash. There underneath it all around the edge of her basket was a curved arc of broad bean seeds. It looked like Floyd had decided to branch out and grow some beans of her own.
I loved that dog so much. We became an inseperable team. Each day we spent hours in the fields, at the crack of dawn, midday and dusk. First light we would be up and crossing the estate to disappear into the meadows. Floyd never pulled on her lead but walked like a compressed spring, always full of excitement. At the time it was possible to walk some distance in the Hamp fields. The first meadow was full of cows and their excreta which I negotiated carefully. Floyd liked to roll in it and cover her ears in dung. Most days she would find an evil smell to roll in and I would have to say “Don’t come too close. You stink you dirty devil”. Dead fish were her other favourite especially if she had been required to have a bath. She clearly preferred the stink of rotting fish corpse to the smell of baths and shampoo. The Hamp fields were often covered in water and flooded to a depth of about six inches in winter, Floyd especially loved walking in them then. I followed along in thick socks and wellington boots. It was possible to walk some distance without much human company, just lots of birds, badgers, foxes and other wildlife. Floyd was such a well behaved and clever dog. We were having a wonderful time. I decided to rescue another dog as a companion for Floyd, because I believed that caring for dogs was so easy.