Old Sam

It was not yet dusk on a clear Spring morning as he lightly threw the last shovelful onto the small grave.  He had endeavoured to be as quiet as possible, so as not to wake his family or their neighbours, especially old McBill next door, who was well known in the village for being extremely petulant when woken too early.   His mind flicked back over the last seventeen years to the beginning, the time when his furry friend first came into their lives.

***

The newly ordained Rev. Roger Braithwaite could hardly contain his excitement as he packed his neat little family into the crumbling Austin A35 van for the tiring journey from Nuneaton in Warwickshire across the country to his newly appointed post as pastor in the quaint and sleepy rural village of Yaxham in Norfolk.

His wife Lynn, a quiet and supportive woman, small but carrying her head high, displaying an elegance rarely seen at such a young age,  sat next to him in the front of the car. Behind was little Maisie, 2 and Peter, who was 4 and so proud that his dad was to be the Reverend at St. Peters church.  He thought that the church was obviously named after him, despite having been built nearly one thousand years earlier.

As they approached the rectory the children couldn’t contain themselves, immediately springing from the car and shooting off to investigate the many secret hiding places in the large well-maintained gardens. Lynn smiled satisfyingly, enormously proud, happily contented to be finally settling down after 5 difficult long years during which Roger qualified. Now they could finally make a home, and what a home! Roger had been incredibly fortunate to be offered such a post and accommodation for his first ministry.

That evening during dinner Roger asked Peter if he would say grace, which he said was a very special honour as this was their first meal at their new home.

Peter grinned confidently, “ We thank God for the food on our table, and for sending us to this nice big home with lots of secret places where we can hide when we are naug….er hiding. And thank you dear God for letting me have a bedroom all for myself.  Amen”

“Well done Peter”, said Roger encouragingly, “but next time perhaps you might like to think about your family as well. God has provided all of us with a lovely bedroom.”

“Yes Dad, sorry. Can we eat now, I’m starving?”

While they were eating, Roger asked Lynn if it would be a good idea for them to add another member to their family. Lynn was shocked at such a topic being discussed in front of the children, especially by a man of the cloth.

“Roger! Can we discuss this later, now is not the time.”

Seeing the anticipated frown on her face, he smiled lovingly. “No, you misunderstand darling. I meant that maybe we should consider a little dog. It would be great for the children and we have so much space here.”

“A dog! Yes, yes, yes please!” shrieked Peter “I promise to be good for a whole year if we can have a dog.”

They all laughed. “OK it’s a deal.”

The next day Roger made some visits around the local farms in order to become acquainted with his parish and to introduce himself.  At Hurst Farm the most amazing coincidence happened. While chatting with John  Hurst it sprang out in conversation that his lead sheepdog Meg, had  six whelps, four of which would be kept as working dogs, but he was looking for new owners of the other two puppies. They were fourteen weeks old and are ready for their new homes. Roger couldn’t believe his luck.

Two hours later he pulled into the driveway with two cardboard boxes, having stopped at the local pet shop on the way home to purchase all of the necessary paraphernalia required by a new puppy. The pet shop also had some new kittens and on seeing them he just had to buy the pure black one. It looked weaker than the others and he could never resist the runt in the litter.

That evening the two additions were the only source of conversation, while names were selected and sleeping arrangements organised.

“No, they will not sleep in your bedrooms. They will sleep in the utility room as it is next to the garden,” ordered Lynn.

So, they were now a family of six. Sam loved his new owners and played endlessly with the children. Gerry began her life as a playful little kitten, but soon began to see her new owners more as her personal staff and treated them as such. Sam and Gerry each had their separate baskets. They never had any form of contact or showed any affection for each other. It was just as if for each of them, the other didn’t exist.

***

As the children grew it became, quite naturally, the case that Sam “belonged” to Peter, as he was always the one to take him for his daily walk, feed him, brush him etc. whereas Gerry would be found sitting on Maisies lap and received her food and titbits always from her.

Any onlooker would be convinced that Sam and Gerry simply didn’t like each other, until one day when Gerry was out crossing the lane, just as a hoodlum on a motor bike came screaming around the corner. The biker saw Gerry apparently, which caused him to drop the bike in order to avoid a collision, but in doing so a piece of the wing mirror spat out as it hit the ground, impaling itself just below the jaw of Gerry. She crawled away into the bushes, bleeding badly.

On hearing the commotion outside Lynn ran to the gate to see the motorcyclist standing up, dusting himself down.  “Are you okay” she called “are you hurt?”

“I think so,” replied the shaken but seemingly unhurt rider. “I think that my pride is the biggest victim today. I swerved to avoid a black cat and couldn’t hold the bike. It slid from under me but the only damage seems to be one broken mirror, but at least the cat was not hurt. Sorry to have bothered you.”

With a smile of embarrassment he picked up the bike, kick started and was on his way, this time a little more carefully.

That evening as they sat in front of their new black and white television, watching Hughie Green and the “Muscle Man” in the new TV series, Opportunity Knocks, Maisie suddenly realised that Gerry had not come home for her dinner. This was most unusual, so she went to the back door to call and whistle for her. This always brought her home. She came back a little distraught as Gerry could not be seen.

“Cats are always like this, Maisie,” said Roger. “She’ll be back when she gets hungry.”

Lynn had the sudden idea that something could be wrong. Until that moment she hadn’t connected the motor bike accident with Gerry, but the more she pondered the more she became suspicious. Shortly afterwards she heard Sam pining at the front door and went to see what was the problem. Sam was uneasy and paddling his paws on the floor as he does when “One Man and His Dog” comes on the television. This raised Lynn’s suspicions even more.

Quietly, without raising concern, she went out to the lane with her torch. Sam followed and immediately went snuffling into the hedge opposite. After some minutes Lynn heard a very faint mmeowwing and slowly moved towards the sound. She had to get down on all fours and crawl into a bramble bush, but soon saw Gerry in the beam of her torchlight. She was in a very bad way, fur slicked down by the loss of blood, and the point of a glistening piece of glass protruding from near her throat.

Quickly she fetched Roger who, using the garden shears, managed to cut away enough foliage to reach in and grasp Gerry. She was too far gone to object. Tom Watson, the local vet, was luckily at home. After an hours’ worth of treatment and thorough clean-up it turned out that Gerry was no longer in danger. The glass had not pierced a major artery and she would be as good as new in a week or so.

They placed Gerry on the hearth in front of the wood burner. She was very cold, and too weak to move. Sam watched intensely the whole time and switching his gaze between Gerry and Roger, pined very quietly as if to ask what was going on.” Why was Gerry so still?” He very slowly crawled on his belly up to her and licked her neck. She stirred gently and purred as if she was actually speaking to Sam. Encouraged by this he moved so close until his whole body was cuddled around her in a semi-circle. Gerry snuggled up to this warmth and so they stayed for the rest of that night. This was the first time they had ever shown any contact or care for each other.

Within a few weeks it was business-as-usual. Gerry was fully recovered and at 7 years old was in her prime, catching mice and birds on a daily, if not hourly basis. She even tried to drag a rabbit through the cat flap one time, until Lynn scolded her severely.

***

Some years later, when Peter was in his final year at university and Maisie was studying for a re-sit of her failed A-Levels, a great Christmas party was organised at the rectory. Roger and Lynn had decided that the family was becoming far too separated and it was time for a reunion. Her parents would travel down from Durham, her sister and children from Leeds. Rogers widowed father would come up with his sister, Aunt Beatie, and the whole family would be reunited for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Old Sam was not so impressed. Usually a quiet household, it had suddenly turned into Bedlam.  He kept out of the way as much as possible, as did Gerry, although both enjoyed the titbits from the Christmas lunch being slipped to them by Maisie and Peter during the meal.

It was a long day.  It was into the early hours on boxing day morning before everyone retired. Roger was just locking up and making sure the two old pets were put out into the utility room when he saw Sam lying awkwardly in the corner of the dining room. “Come on, old boy!” he said, “time for bed.”

Sam didn’t move. On closer inspection it was clear that he was unconscious. He was cold and his breathing could barely be traced.  Roger brought his basket and gently lifted him in. He was a dead weight showing no recognition of being moved. Rogers immediate intention was to call Tom Watson, but after a few moments he decided that he would let things take their course. Sam was a good old age and had probably had a heart attack. Better to let him die peacefully at home rather than to go through more trauma at the vets.

He sat with Sam for more than two hours when he started to feel unwell. He was very tired, so tired that it was making him feel slightly sick. He decided to go to bed for a couple of hours with the certainty that Sam would be dead when he returned. His breathing had almost stopped. Before he went he spent a few more minutes remembering back to the first week when they had all arrived in Yaxham. It seemed so long ago, but so much had happened in those sixteen years. So many memories with the children, but hardly any where Sam wasn’t involved somewhere along the line. He had always been present. He will be sorely missed.

Reluctantly he trudged up the stairs. Lynn was sleeping peacefully and did not stir as he slid into bed. He set the alarm for six as he didn’t want to let anyone else in the family find Sam by being up first. Immediately, or so it seemed, after closing his eyes the alarm went off. He quickly stopped it, before it could disturb the others. Being a light sleeper had its advantages sometimes.

He crept down the stairs very quietly so as not to disturb anyone and went to Sam’s basket. He could hardly believe his eyes. Gerry was lying right on top of Sam. As Roger entered the room she stirred, but did not relinquish her position. He touched Sam’s lank fur and felt carefully around his neck and chest. He was cold. He tried to lift Gerry away but she clung on. She wanted to be with Sam until the last minute. With tears in his eyes, Roger went out to the garden shed to get the spade. In his pyjamas, oblivious to the freezing cold, he quickly dug a hole down at the end of the garden behind the cherry tree.

On returning to the house, it was still dark, and he went to collect Sam for delivery to his final resting place. He pulled Gerry away and took a firm grip on Sam’s underbelly to get good leverage, to lift him from the basket. How could he have been such a fool? Sam opened one blurry eye, his vision was clearly not there, but somehow he was still alive. Gerry had known all along!

Roger immediately went into action. He called Tom Watson to come straightaway. The answering machine gave the message that Tom was away for Christmas and would not be back for three days. In an emergency he should call another number. Upon answering the vet said that he would need about two hours to get there as he had another emergency in Norwich, and to keep Sam as warm as possible but peaceful.

Roger put on some gentle music, Beethoven’s 6th Pastoral Symphony. He sat next to Sam and caressed him gently. After some minutes he rose to make a cup of tea. It was now nine o’clock, and still no-one was up. As he returned to the dining room with the tea tray the fifth movement was just beginning. On hearing this Sam staggered to his feet, crawled out of his basket and stood looking bemused at Roger. He was clearly blind, but sensed the direction as though his vision was full. Roger sat looking at him, with tears rolling down his face. The music and the situation were just too much for him to control.

He turned the music up to full volume. The family, immediately roused from their slumber, came down the stairs to find out what all the commotion was about.  They all stood in the doorway looking at Roger as if he was becoming crazy.

Lynn, looking utterly concerned, stammered “ Roger, are you alright? Whatever is going on?”

Roger spoke through his streaming tears, and smiled before he said with quivering lips, “Everything is fine. I was just remembering why I became a pastor.”

 

***

Sam had, indeed, had a severe stroke. He was paralysed in his right shoulder and leg, some eyesight returned but he remained disabled for the remaining 16 months of his life. He would spend that time bumping into furniture and completely ignoring Gerry, as had been the case for 17 years….except on those two occasions.