My Mum had a nick-name for my father and that nick-name was Hawkey. It was also the habit of everyone else who knew him to use that same nick-name. In fact, I now admit that it was only until the day of his funeral that I actually discovered that his name was Dennis. That is something truly amazing to me at this time in life, don't you think? And as to the reason for this state of affairs? Why he was decorated with such a prestigious nom de plum? It is to this day unknown to me, and I have no doubt that it will forever remain that way. He was not particularly sharp-eyed, while neither on the other hand was he visually impaired. For example, he never wore spectacles, and he had two eyes, as opposed to only one.
But my father was definitely a man's man. He bred dogs. But these were not the type of animal you would look at and say something like, “Ah! Nice puppy!” No, if you saw one of my father's dogs, you would probably take a few involuntary steps back, say absolutely nothing and leave very quickly. These dogs were all muscle, teeth and rage.
You see, he bred dogs for fighting – a so-called sport that has since been very rightly outlawed.
But what can you say about these animals? This was their only reason for existing. These terrible events (to which I give not even the merest passive nod of approval) took place at the derelict building outside our village behind what was called “the forestry” known as the Old Pit Head Baths. I was never allowed anywhere near this place, and that included the other nightmare that would have been the kennels as well. I don't know what happened to these animals after my father went ill. Probably one of his mates took over. I don't know. But they must have been awful places. I have since heard many reports about it, and do not include any of them here because they sound more like horror stories than anything else, what with the sound they made and all the blood and everything.
But my father felt sorry for one particular dog, and brought him home. He said that little Whitey wasn't tough enough for the pit – wouldn't have lasted a moment. And besides, it would be a good chance for me to get used to animals and it's always good for a boy to have a dog. Make a good companion for me, wouldn't he? Well, being the dutiful and obedient son of my father, I accepted his gift of a puppy. After all, little Whitey was nothing but an old softy, right?
Wrong! Little Whitey was the devil in a dog disguise!
All I can say is, and I admit that I am, and can only ever speculate on the truthfulness of the matter because as I said, I was never allowed to go anywhere near the kennels, that if little Whitey was a softy, I only dread to think what the others must have been like!
He was one mean puppy!
And as for taking him out for walkies, forget about it. Little Whitey was totally self-sufficient. You might safely say that he made his own plans.
He would snap at all my friends, and bark at the neighbours, and you could tell that he enjoyed it, too! Yet the strange thing was, amazingly, everyone loved him! It was as if he had cast a spell over them or something. He was horrible, yet he would go into other people's houses and they would feed him! Yes, that's right, the very neighbours whom he barked at would take pity on him and give him food!
“Ah, there you are, Whitey.” they would say, or something like that.
Then he would come home and expect to be fed again!
If he was human, Whitey would have been a gangster. I'm convinced of it!
At that time my Mum rented a huge black and white TV from the Co-Op. This was installed and placed on a small, low table under the living room window, facing the front of our house. My father was definitely not one for television until he went ill, and then my Mum bought him a colour TV. It was the late sixties and we were one of the first families in our village to own one. We would sit with him and watch together and it would help to keep him calm. But in those early black and white days, my Mum used to enjoy the wrestling on a Saturday afternoon and I used to enjoy Blue Peter, my favourite childhood show.
But little Whitey put a quick and abrupt end to all my Blue Peter enjoyment! After a full day of eating out, he would come in and find me on the floor watching telly after school and sit himself down right in front of the screen and face me and just give me that evil stare of his, as if to say, “Yeah! Go on, cry! Just what do you think you're going to do about it?” baring his teeth and growling at me the same time. There was of course nothing I could do about it, except wait for him to scramble off to the kitchen when he heard Mum opening a tin of meat. Later, I did that myself. It was dangerous business, let me tell you. I discovered what my poor old mother went through. I don't really think that my Mum really wanted him in the house, but, Hawkey gets what Hawkey wants, is what she kept telling me. Whitey would growl at me as the tin turned in its slow, anti-clockwise circle. When it stopped he would continue with more growling and a few barks as I was putting the foul-smelling meat into his bowl. Then, as said bowl finally landed on the floor in front of him, he would bark even more loudly and I had to get out of his way as quickly as possible to avert his attempt to bite my hand off!
Then, one Christmas, my surprise present was a European Championship table soccer game, complete with a stadium, flood-lights, and figures of the referee and linesmen, together with boxes of figures in the strips of all the major contending teams, hand painted to the most minute detail. It must have cost them an absolute fortune. I am now well known as a serious fan of the Beautiful Game, and that's how I got started!
But I refer to it as table soccer for the want of a better word, although that was the official name for it. This was because in practical terms it was impossible to give it the pride of place it richly deserved on any table that my parents owned. But me and my father together, on that never-to-be forgotten, comfortable, personally nostalgic childhood memory of a Christmas morning, set it up together (well, he did, mostly, you know how it is!) and played each other. We didn't take the part of one country or another, or anything. He was, like, Hawkey United, and I was something like Mark Athletic. Or something like that. I can't remember what the score was, now. Doesn't really matter, does it? My Mum was the ultimate referee, who whistled full time because our long-anticipated Christmas dinner was ready.
And that was little Whitey's big chance!
We had assembled the stadium in front of the television on the carpet on the uneven living room floor, because that was the largest open space available in our house, and as soon as we got up to go into the kitchen for dinner, the devil in a dog disguise, strangely not interested in food that particular day, came swaggering in and sat down on my new Euro Stadium, crushing half of it, including the Royal Box, one flood-light, and most of the figures. Even though I was about eleven or so at the time, and Hawkey was a tough-guy, I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried like a baby. And Hawkey agreed with me.
For him, that was the game-changer, with no apology for the pun.
Yes, to his great credit, Hawkey went mental!
Shouting curses at the evil beast who was in my opinion getting a long-deserved helping of justice, he grabbed Whitey by the collar and holding him away from himself at arm's length (remember, he was an eating machine and by this time was now a very big dog) and marched him out of the living room, through the kitchen where we had set up our dining table, out through the door out to the bottom of our long garden. What happened next was a sight to see; a real spectacle. This is the truth. My father literally drop-kicked the dog up the garden. My Mum screamed. She thought he had killed the poor animal. If I'm honest, it was the first time, but certainly not last, that I actually felt sorry for him. But not much, obviously. Whitey landed hard against the door of our garden shed, into which he scrambled as if his life depended on it. Had Whitey at last learned his lesson?
No, not a bit of it! Whitey's career of evil was not over yet.
But make no mistake about it, Whitey definitely had it coming.
I have already told you that Whitey liked to eat out. I have also mentioned that my Mum had an account with the Co-Op. Well, in those days, so did almost everyone else. These were the days when the Co-Op was king. They seemed to me, thinking about it now, to take care of just about everything. Everything from your birth certificate to your funeral and all your personal requirements in between. This included what was without any doubt at all, Whitey's favourite place. Yes, his best, er, client, you might say.
The Co-Op butcher.
Alf, the butcher in question and the man at the heart of all this, told me all the stories about Whitey after his retirement when I met him and had a pint with him at the local club (by the way, the clubs were also king at this time as well as the Co-Op, but that's nothing to worry about. It's not as if they were ever in competition or anything). Whitey clearly relished his meal at the butcher's. After several visits to the neighbours for what amounted by comparison to no more than a starter course, he would be running so fast that he would sometimes topple over as he negotiated the hairpin bend into the shop's entrance. This was Whitey's personal version of Xanadu. Here he would be fed scrap after scrap of all manner of meat and offal and stuffing until even Whitey's seemingly never-ending appetite was satisfied. And after this experience of doggy ecstasy, do you think Whitey's evil manners would have at least slowed down?
There is something that I have not told you about Whitey, perhaps out of a sense of personal shyness. You see, Whitey's savagery with regard to food paled into insignificance by comparison to his appetite for sex. Yes, that's right. Whitey would not only sniff out the neighbours for pickings in terms of food. He sired every bitch he could find. No matter what the breed, or the size, nothing proved even vaguely challenging for him. It didn't take long until there were many dogs in our village with an all too striking resemblance to the lad.
Yes, Whitey was sex mad. But his day of doom was fast approaching. And for that, we must return to Alf's world.
The business conducted over the counter of the village's butcher shop was normally done at a fairly gradual, and quite stately, but constant pace. People would come into Alf's premises either one or two at a time. In those days, no one would bulk-buy. There were fridges in people's homes, yes, but these were very small, powered by gas, and it's hard to imagine now, but not everyone had one. Alf had a huge cold-room at the back of the shop, just inside to the left of the delivery bay. He told me once that he was always glad that that was its location, because on the days when he did relief work at other branches, he found himself exhausted there, not because of the hard work, but because the cold-rooms in these other premises took up half of the front end of the shop, and the boys on the van would only ever come as far as the loading bay which was at the back. He shrugged indifferently as he spoke of this in retrospect, because, although he was mildly annoyed with the situation, he knew that they had their job to do and he had his, and as far as they were concerned, they were under no obligation to him whatsoever, even though they all had the same boss.
But none of that was the case at his home shop, our village shop. On that particular day, as he put it, the heavy stone door of the cold-room had been left slightly ajar, because, unusually, and especially as it was mid-week, the shop was very busy and Alf was reduced to hurrying in and out of the cold-room in order to get supplies to serve his customers. In the middle of this fairly rare experience, in comes Whitey, racing through the entrance at virtually suicidal speed in dog terms, only having to slam on the breaks due to the presence of more people in the shop than usual. I say slam on the breaks as a figure of speech, because, as you obviously know, Whitey, like all dogs, did not actually have breaks. But to his credit, he tried his best. Unfortunately, his best was a terrible failure, knocking people over like skittles as he rolled in like an over sized canine bowling ball. Everyone started shouting and getting upset, including, of course, poor old Alf. He rushed around his counter to where everyone was and very hurriedly helped the fallen to their feet. In the middle of all this confusion, Whitey, of course had been forgotten. But you see, like all bullies, Whitey in the end must have been a coward, and, in the ensuing chaos, scrambled for the nearest refuge in a state of what must have been for him sheer terror. Refuge in this case, yes, taking the form of Alf's cold room. Just like his actions at our garden shed, he scrambled inside. Eventually, the situation calmed down and with everyone back on their feet, clothing straightened and dignity restored, they thanked Alf, who made sure they all still had their respective purchases. He also gave them each a small packet of minced beef as an act of compensation for their ordeal before they left. As an encouragement to come back again. It must be said that people were different then.
But Whitey's whereabouts remained a total mystery. Not that Alf's thoughts on the matter were so preoccupied as that. He looked around and about, this way and that, and, finding neither sight nor sign, nor for that matter sound, or any other such evidence of Whitey's presence, closed tight the cold-room door, securing it for the night with a huge padlock. Then, looking at the shop clock, it was half-past four. This was something he remembered clearly when he told the police; that being almost closing time, he busied himself with the paper-roll and covered the remaining shop-front stock in the display counters, swept the floor and left for the night, unknowingly leaving Whitey sealed up in short-lived heaven. It didn't matter that it was pitch-black, or that it was freezing cold. I don't know if dogs can see in the dark like cats can, but Whitey helped himself to as much as he could reach. But as the cold and the dark began to kick in, Whitey was at last reduced to a scared animal, and started scratching at the door. But scratch as he may, the door of Alf's cold-room was made of solid stone, eighteen inches thick and probably bomb-proof for all I know. There was no way out for old Whitey.
Old Whitey was buried alive! You might say...
As I have already said, Whitey's presence in the village was not only tolerated, but for reasons still to this day unknown to me, loved. I repeat this, because on the night of Whitey's absence from the village, my Mum, yes my Mum! not my father, decided to take matters into her own hands. What was her decision? Well, she organised what amounted to a search-party to go out looking for him. This search party, you must understand, only consisted of my Mum, my father and me, Hawkey expressing the opinion that he was merely tagging along against his better judgement, being soundly convinced that the lad was quite safe and capable of looking after himself and finding his way home as and when he saw fit. An opinion with which I heartily agreed. Our next-door neighbours either side came too. Because, they said, ah, pity for him. And to be fair, we left no stone unturned. We knocked doors, looked up the woods and down the lake. My father even went up to see if he was in the kennels, but there was no Whitey to be seen anywhere. And with being locked in the cold-room, even if he was squealing, we couldn't here him, either. In the end, common sense prevailed, and we all went home.
Then dawned the morning after.
As you may rightly assume, it was poor old Alf's lot to open the door to poor old Whitey after his night in cold storage. And what do you think? That poor old Whitey had frozen to a solid block of ice?
No such luck!
Alf was a big, well-fed, rugby-playing Welshman, but as soon as he opened his shop's cold-room door, he was attacked at high velocity and knocked to the floor by a huge white dog smeared with blood. Alf said he looked as if he had been fighting in the pit. Convinced he was about to be badly bitten, with his huge right arm, managed in a split-second to land a solid punch right squarely on the dog's jaw, sending him skidding across the shop floor. With energy fuelled by pure adrenaline, Alf was back on his feet and ran to the dog and kicked him out into the street. The right-footed kick that had been so effective in scoring so many conversions on the rugby field on Saturday afternoons after the shop was closed, sent Whitey skidding over the road, where he ran home squealing in pain and sounding more like a pig than a dog.
It was the squeal of pain heard by the whole village.
You know by now that Whitey was a fast runner, but this time he broke all records. He bounded down the main road like a bolt of lightening. It was just as well our front door was open at the time, because I reckon that if it was closed, Whitey would have smashed through it as if it was match-wood by the sheer force of his speed. He tore through our living room, through the kitchen and out up the garden into the shed, where I think he would have been wise to spend the rest of his days.
If these events had happened today, Whitey would definitely have been destroyed. And, to be fair, as he had done serious damage to Alf's shop and stock, Alf was right to ban not only Whitey, but all dogs from then on. But when the Police, who turned up at the Co-Op manager's request, asked him if he wanted to press charges, Alf very charitably declined. Partly out of genuine neighbourliness, and partly out of admitting his share of responsibility, because he knew that the dog had come into the shop, but had failed to make sure that he was gone. Alf and my father agreed to pay half each for the loss of the meat in the cold-room. But it was a pretty scary experience for Alf, all the same.
As for Whitey, what was to become of him?
Whitey's story ends, in fact, very sadly. He stayed in the shed for a couple of days. Eventually, my father took pity on him and brought him into the kitchen and dressed his wounds. He was clearly very shaken by the whole thing, and it is true to say that he was never the same.
But the reformed Whitey didn't last long.
The main road of our village even to this day has a nasty bend with a blind spot about two hundred yards from our house up towards Alf's Co-Op butcher's shop. We don't know if Whitey was timidly venturing back there in search of another banquet, or in walking slowly as an act of doggy penitence, but a Post Office van hit him and the poor thing had to be put down.
Believe it or not, in spite of everything I have said about old Whitey, when I came home from school that day, I found my Mum crying. When she told me what had happened, I cried too. Even now, I get a pang when I think of him. I think now, perhaps Whitey was an animal version of the village idiot, or the village character, or something. Whatever he was, I have to admit that my father was right; it was good for a boy to have a dog and to learn through that and other ways, the virtue and pleasure of companionship.
But that whole world is gone now. There are no more dog fights, nor any blood sports for that matter. And there are no more tough-guys like Hawkey, either. The clubs are no longer king, and neither is the Co-Op. People don't leave their doors open any more and life is a lot more complicated. I make no judgement about this – it's not like I'm saying it was better then than now. I'm just saying that it's, well, all gone now and now we have something different.