As I approached my seventh birthday I was informed that I was a very lucky little girl. I was not surprised, I was used to being told that, and although I generally could not see why I was lucky – the adjective was often applied when I was told that I had to do something I didn’t want to do, I was prepared to accept that this was the case, and I wondered what form my good fortune would take. It was explained: I was lucky because I was going to be given something I had always wanted. What could this be? A big pencil case with a roll back top like Pamela had? A pogo stick or….? No. I was to have a dog! I was very surprised: I had never evinced an interest in having a dog; in fact, I didn’t much like dogs, I thought them dirty and smelly, but I was too wise to say this, and after all, perhaps I was lucky, because apparently I was to be allowed to choose it myself.
It was to be a spaniel and it would be called Simon. This also did not surprise me because I knew a lot about spaniels called Simon. When Madge and Roy had first married, they had bought a spaniel and called it by this name, and Madge had adored it – it seemed to me that when she spoke about Simon there was affection and fondness there that I had never experienced; but then Simon had been so much more deserving than a difficult child like me; moreover, I had apparently been instrumental in Simon’s death since he had departed in chagrin to the Great Kennels in the Sky soon after I had been born. But now he was to be resurrected and he was to be – surprisingly – mine! I was amazed at her kindness: that something so precious was to be given to me!
Madge explained that as he was to be mine, I must take full responsibility for him. The rules were laid down: I was to take him out whatever the weather for walks three times a day: before I went to school, when I came back from school, and before I went to bed. In holiday time I must take him out a fourth time in the afternoon, on this occasion, and this only I might be accompanied by Roy. Madge of course would not do any dog walking (she was not strong enough) unless the day might be warm and sunny when she might take a stroll out. I must also prepare the dog’s food: great lumps of raw meat must be cut up and cooked (I was only seven!) The dog must be groomed, and if noisy, must be taken out of Madge’s way and amused in the garden. I was to be responsible for keeping an ear open for this. All this must be done by me because he was my dog, not Madge’s. The sheer horror of all these onerous duties did not strike me beforehand: I was told I was lucky, I believed I was; after all, not every little girl could have a dog of her own choice.
Now we were off to choose Simon, and there in the basket of a smelly room were seven puppies. I forgot my prejudices, they were sweet and adorable and I knew immediately which one I wanted. “That one, please,” I said, “that is the one.” I suddenly felt I was lucky, the little dog was exactly what I wanted, he was made for me. Madge smiled and shook her head, “Oh no, that one is not the least like Simon. We’ll have that one with the spot.”
Whether it was because the dog was not the one I wanted, or whether it was the sheer daily grind of looking after him single-handed, I never warmed to Simon, in fact, I disliked him intensely. What child wants to put on wellingtons and take a dog out at the three most awkward times of the day? And then Simon was never properly trained; Roy had trained Simon’s blueprint, but now it was term time and Roy was at school, I was not allowed to train him (“you wouldn’t know what to do!”); Barnie was a known dog-hater, and Madge of course “couldn’t be expected to wear herself out.” The result was that the dog was never properly trained and he was by nature an altogether obstreperous character: if he was inside, he whined to get out, when he was out he whined to get in; in spite of all the walks he never seemed to settle down and sleep like other dogs, but rushed about jumping up and down, barking and whining, and had to be constantly taken away from Madge’s sight lest she become tired; then his coat was always moulting and everything was covered in white hairs, which it was my job to remove (“and properly, mind”); then he was bent on escaping the bounds of Frith House, particularly when there were bitches on heat: this evinced much whispering between Madge and Barnie about ‘male needs’, ‘urges’, ‘the call of Mother Nature’, and many long excursions had to be taken by Roy and me to find him and drag him home.
I have been told to keep Simon out of Madge’s way; he is planning to do a runner as soon as my back is turned.
So all in all, Simon was not a success, like me he was ungrateful for his good fortune, he became a ‘sore trial’ to Madge, a source of worry to Roy, and an object of loathing to me. Barnie had nothing whatever to do with him – although I occasionally saw her give him a surreptitious and surprisingly powerful kick as he passed her by. Perhaps the dog I had not been allowed to have would have, after all, been a wiser choice. Perhaps not, but I have never had a dog since.
The original Simon, by contrast, developed a kind of canine halo: we all felt that he was emblematic of better days: he symbolised a halcyon time when I was mercifully unborn, when Barnie lived elsewhere, and when Roy was newly captured; then indeed, with the advent of an angelic dog, the Purnell’s life was one of unmitigated delight.
Apart from the trips to Tankerton and Reculver there were two other regularly made outings, the first was to a seaside place beyond Margate; obviously it must be beyond Margate, because that was a place where the working classes went. “They come in charabancs for their fortnight’s holiday,” Barnie would volunteer as we drove past this contemptible spot and much mirth was had by the phrase ‘head-walking’, because looking down from her superior position in the Ford Popular, Madge had once remarked, “there’s so many of them down there on the beach you could walk on their heads,” and this bon mot was rehearsed every time we passed, even when the beach was virtually empty. We were bound further afield to a windswept place round the coast on top of a cliff where there was a clock golf course. Now it is difficult to say why this continued to be a favourite venue since the whole exercise generated nothing but resentment and anger.
We would park on this cliff top by a main road and because there was no bench Barnie did not get out, but sat miserable in the car brooding over the question: why had she been made to come and sit in this uncomfortable car when she could have stayed comfortably at home? Simon hated it because it was near the main road and he had to be kept tied up; but the main cause of the trouble was the clock golf itself.
Roy was quite a fair sportsman with a good eye for the ball, and on his own would probably have completed a pretty good round; I was not a good sportswoman and disliked anything to do with hitting a ball, but as bad as I was, I wasn’t as bad as Madge. Now the problem was this, which in our different ways we were all aware of: Madge knew how it should be: Roy must win because he was ‘the man’ and men must win, otherwise they would not be manly, and the spouse would be seen not to have made a good match; but Madge must come second, almost pipping Roy at the post, showing what a skilful golfer she was; and I must come last because I was ‘that child’, and it was good for me to learn to be a good loser. Now Roy was a kindly man and he knew that I wasn’t being treated fairly, but he was frightened of Madge and he dared not oppose her; but I knew he felt bad, and not only bad, but dishonest, because he had to engineer matters so that Madge came second; he did his best, or rather his worst, to even things up by playing very badly, but even so it was difficult because although I was pretty poor, I wasn’t as poor as Madge; thus, if she made a poor shot some excuse must be found for giving her a second chance, whereas when I indignantly pointed out that I was never given a second chance, Madge would say I was showing ‘a poor spirit’, that I was lacking in sportsmanship’, I must learn to be ‘a good loser’. So although at the end the result was always the same: first Roy, second Madge and last Anthea, we all felt unhappy and angry, Roy because he knew he had behaved dishonestly, Madge because she sensed that Roy felt sorry for me, and I, because I felt cheated by the pair of them. “Who won?” Barnie would ask as we returned in silence to the car. “Roy, of course,” Madge would reply, “women can never beat men”. “Madge nearly beat me, though,” Roy would add treacherously. Then we went home.
The second genre of outings was visiting stately homes and gardens; this was before the rise of the National Trust, so there weren’t many homes to visit, but there were a number of gardens ‘open’. Once we went to Sissinghurst Castle and actually saw Vita Sackville West: she was leaning out of a high castle-type edifice and shouted out ‘hello, ducks’. Madge face darkened; this was not the kind of behaviour she expected from a Famous Person. But normally we went to the gardens of lesser people. Roy was a vegetable gardener and had no interest in flowers, and the whole thing was a trial to him as Madge walked round very slowly, always with an eye open to discover the owner to whom she could mention the fact that Roy was ‘senior English master at Kings School, Canterbury.’. I rather liked the ambience and didn’t mind the slow progression round the flower beds, and (oh how foolish!) was always buoyed up by the hope that this time we would sit down at one of those little tables and have tea and cake. We never did, but Roy would buy Madge a little present: a plant, a pot of jam or a piece of pottery, and once three paintings. We had gone round the garden owned by the Sterndale Bennetts; I believe he was a composer of some repute, and paintings were on sale done by a wife or sister. Madge snapped them up and subsequently had them framed and hung in the hall at Frith House: “these came from the Sterndale Bennetts – when I was visiting there.” Not exactly a lie. Of all the outings I liked the garden visits best because Barnie didn’t come and Simon was left in the car.
Madge is visiting the Sternedale Bennets.