Some things stay with you.
When I was a wee nipper – an introductory phrase which, in fact, reveals nothing of the speed at which I progressed through toilet training, for those of you with a less charitable turn of mind – my grandfather had a dog. A Chihuahua¹. A small companion dog, known for not very much excepting perhaps a temperament that belied, or, perhaps with the wisdom of the years I can now see underlined, his size.
Yet he was deceptive. He’d give the occasional asthmatic bark, and pretty much just ignore you. He looked for all the world like he was a supremely benign, and in fact generally half-asleep little pup; sitting quietly on his blanket, just watching the world go by.
Until your fingers descended below the 12-inch hard deck². Then either you moved your hands real quick, or ended up being able to count only to nine.
He bit me once. I don’t remember when it was – I think I was too young. I just remember remembering. It was a rite of passage, in that house. Everybody got bitten sooner or later; usually sooner – Tiny wasted no time whatsoever making himself known. The first time you got bitten, it was funny. Ha ha, the little bugger got you, joke’s on you. After that, Right, you’ve been warned, stay our of his way, or serve yourself bloody right, ya drongo. The bottom 12 inches of that house were full of teeth, and that was just the way it was; rather unfairly, it seemed to me at the time. I had little option but to occupy exactly the same airspace. I wish to Christ he HAD been in the bathroom3. The only safe place in the house for me was up on the couch.
One of my earliest memories is of being on my hands and knees beside the dining table on the floor in that house, snapping my fingers at Tiny in the clichéd come-here-little-doggy way we all adopted as kids probably as a result of watching American television shows about faithful, friendly dogs playfully licking faces and rescuing children from down wells, and which in reality works almost never. But it worked on this occasion. Tiny turned to look at me, and what happened next I can still see, even though it was probably 35 years ago. Tiny couldn’t work his little legs fast enough in an effort to get over to me – the claws on all four of his feet making scrit-scrit-scrit sounds on the lino in the kitchen as he desperately sought for traction. He finally shot forward and was accelerating towards my little fingers with ill-intent. It was then that some sainted relative did me a favour that…..well, let’s face it, doesn’t really matter because my handwriting is terrible and I’m only using a small subset of my fingers to type this anyway…..nonetheless saved me a lot of anguish and….come to think of it, probably robbed me of some consolatory icecream. I just remember these large hands grabbing me around the ribcage from either side and lifting me out of the way just as the Teeth arrived. Tiny fell away below me looking like a disappointed buzz-saw.
As I grew up, Tiny became less and less of a threat, more of one of life’s simple cautions that we take for granted….don’t cross the street without looking because you’ll get hit by a car……don’t run into long grass or put your hands into logs and such because you’ll get bitten by a snake……don’t allow your fingers anywhere near Tiny. After a while it was just second nature and you could largely ignore it.
Tiny’s been gone for almost 30 years now. I miss him in a way. Without the threat it takes some of the familiarity out of those visits. Oh, there’s a poodle there now that bites people occasionally, but it’s pretty pissweak in comparison, frankly. He hardly even breaks the skin, the big sook.
Tiny gave me a fear of dogs that lasted well into my teens; even now I find it hard…unnatural…dangerous, to sit on the floor in that house. And without a word of a lie, to this day, every time I hear a chihuahua bark, it makes me want to jump up on a couch.
1. I recognise there may be some degree of debate at this juncture as to where the definition of “dog” starts and stops. Sort it out amongst yourselves, but out of respect for everyone involved, I’ll stick to the traditional taxonomy.
2. Top Gun reference. Get some culture.