Grace the Wonder Dog (part 1)

Recently I received an email with photos of a beautiful healthy dog romping around by the riverside. These pictures illustrate the happy end to a tale that began a year and a half ago, the story of Grace the Wonder Dog.

Last year I was working for Angel and Pili, before they downsized and headed for the hills of Soria. The premises were offices above a warehouse in an Industrial estate in Fuenlabrada. Not the most edifying of locations, and feindishly difficult to get there and back without a car. I started the job in September, and soon the sandals and sleeveless tops gave way to fleeces, hiking shoes and waterproofs. In the mornings and again after work I trudged half an hour in the wind and rain (and a couple of times even snow) from the tram station, along faceless boulevards, under motorway bridges, round roundabouts, past railway lines, stepping over rubbish and dead rats through the deserted streets of the estate to get to work. Every day I would walk to the local restaurant for a menu del dia with Angel and Pili, and we would pass a sort of tinker’s yard with a large olive tree in the middle of it, a rusty caravan listing on stacks of bricks, piles of scrap metal and paint cans. There was a scruffy-looking puppy on the loose, and tied to the tree, a skeletal white dog, always lying on its side. Occasionally it would raise its head as we walked past.

According to my friends the owner inherited a female dog a few years back when he bought the land, and kept her tied to the tree. Every season the local estate dogs would come and impregnate her, and there would be a litter of puppies to house. Angel and Pili had taken one of them home. The original dog had since died, and the latest prisoner was one of her daughters. Almost every day they would stop and chat to the owner, a toothless moron who was always tinkering around in the yard. They would enquire after the dogs. He seemed to think it was ok to keep the female tied up like that- Angel and Pili told me she´d been there for two years, wearing the same tight collar since she was a couple of months old. No amount of commenting that she looked thin, or maybe needed exercise made any difference. He was one of those dangerous creatures- people who say they love animals yet have no idea how to look after them. After a while we started bringing scraps of meat and left-overs from our lunch for them, and it would become a daily ritual to feed them. They were both obviously starving. Despite her background, when I approached the skeletal dog cautiously, expecting an understandable antipathy, I found her to be gentle and docile.

Then one day he informed us he was going to get rid of the female dog. Some gypsies from the shanty town the other side of the estate had told him they’d take her. Back at the office we re-grouped and came up with a plan. You see, there’s no way we could let that happen. Not with a team comprised of me, Angel and Pili the Soft Lass. The dog would have been going from the frying pan straight into the fire- either living out her days as a virtual stray and scavenger at the camp, or possibly fattened up and sold on for illegal dog fights. At that time I was out of the house 12 hours Monday to Friday, so adopting a dog was highly impractical, but something moved me to say ‘I´ll take her home until we find somebody to have her.’

Why did I do that? Maybe a knee-jerk instinct to stick up for the underdog. Maybe because I can´t stand cruelty to anything/anyone vulnerable and powerless. Probably because she symbolised for me all that is hopeless and screwed up about the female condition. No control over her life, alone, unwanted, left out in the cold, repeatedly screwed by the male of the species, pregnant, giving birth alone in the cold of winter only to have her babies taken away from her. Another reason I was moved to take her in was that once, over 12 years ago when I was living in Ibiza, one of my best friends now, let´s call him La Contessa for now, did the same for me- without knowing me very well he took me in off the street like an abandoned stray and nursed me back to health. He didn’t have to do that, but he did. He saw something in me and he gave me a chance. I decided to give that dog a chance.

I went to visit her in the yard. She raised her head and tentatively I stroked her. She was moulting and great clumps of hair came out in my hand yet still she rolled over and gazed at me with eyes of devotion, her flanks quivering at the physical contact and affection.

‘Don´t worry´, I told her, ´You’re coming home with me tomorrow. It´s going to be all right.’ As I got up to leave she also struggled wearily to her feet. When I turned to go she jumped up onto her back legs and rested her paws on my chest. That way she could look me straight in the eye. They say rescue dogs choose you. This dog definitely chose me right then and there. You could hear the sound of heart strings twanging like broken guitar strings. On her hind legs, eye to eye with me, with that sweet, ice blue gaze of supplication, she was the Princess Diana of dogs.

The Toothless Moron was happy to let us claim her; anything to get her off his hands. Angel and Pili took her to their house first and washed her, then they brought her round to my flat. Their sons had her on a lead and she staggered crazily like something on a cakewalk. She had never had any exercise and had Shaun the Sheep wasted limbs- little more than twigs. She looked like a true anorexic- her head too big for her body. The first night she huddled on the mat in the corner by the front door, and refused to come and sit with me, so I sat on the floor with her with my arm round her and spoke quietly to her. She seemed to like the sound of my voice, and I could see her ears swivelling as I told her I was going to take care of her. I stroked her and when I reached her flanks it brought a lump to my throat. There was something so pathetic about those scrawny haunches- where there should have been sleek dog-muscle there was nothing but a bag of fur and bones. She was a wreck yet still she was the most beautiful dog I have ever seen: wolfish and wild-looking, all white with ice-blue eyes. An alsation/husky cross, but the result was a small, dainty hunsky. I have a thing about tragic blonds, and to me there was something so elegant and deeply sad about her that I called her Grace after Grace Kelly. She wasn’t frivolous or bumptious enough to be called Marilyn, and Diana was just too much of a cliche.

That night I took her for another walk round the barrio. Walking Grace was like exercising a toddler on acid. To her, stepping out into the street was like leaving the mothership and exploring a brand new planet, without references, without gravity. She had never been out walking on a lead, never seen cars, buses, motorbikes, crowds of people, other dogs, and had never smelt or seen so many strange new things. She stuck close to me, constantly looking up at me to check for my approval/protection, occasionaly cowering or jumping back behind my legs. Reeling from lamp-post to gutter, wild eyed and with every bone in her body jutting out alarmingly, she must have been a strange sight.

That first night I lay in bed listening to her breathing. I worried she would crap everywhere or start scratching to be let outside. I worried that she felt imprisoned. I worried that she was disoriented and wanted her puppy, who we’d had to leave behind. In short, I worried. Every couple of hours she was up and pacing the flat, whining softly in the back of her throat. Her nails were so long and unkempt that they sounded like a multitude of tiny heels clacking on the parquet floor. I lay in the dark and thought, ‘Shit, what have I done?’ Followed closely by

‘And what the Hell am I going to do now?’

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