Not in my experience
Here’s a story that isn’t my own but has become one I tell, the story of Brandy the dog. Maybe utterance is better. If you are a person who separates story from plot, there are some events, some happenings, in a sequence, possibly fictional, from which to draw meaning from. They certainly meet the criteria for one version of what makes a story, even if it is my own incomplete one.
This story always starts with a discussion of dogs. Discussions to do with dogs have limited directions. Comfortingly ritualistic, they tend towards listing. List the things you know about dogs. Everyone gets a turn. If someone mentions a breed of dog you have owned, you are allowed to say something about that dog. If you also know something about the dog a person is discussing, you are able to say something too. If you don’t know the dog, you may ask questions about its temperament or habits. Don’t settle on one dog too long. Other people have dogs they want to discuss. And, if someone mentions that they like big dogs, I get to say, “Dad had a St Bernard called Brandy.”
I have a habit of narrating other people’s experiences. I catalogue them, match them to other situations, exhibit them. In some sense we all become museums of the people in our lives. Involuntary display cases. Vast. Bewildering. Sheathed in glass. But I shove other people’s stories to the front while mine languish in the backrooms. They are my go-to when interacting with the world.
“I had a friend who…”
“My husband used to…”
“My brother, John, thinks…”
“My Dad had a St Bernard called Brandy.”
I think this is because I lack confidence in my own experiences. They don’t take up space. Or they haven’t been inflated. My experiences end, as Elliot says, like the world, ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. Even this is over-stating it, adding too much proverbial egg. I need to bolster my insubstantial narrative voice with allusions and posturing. By rubbing up against Elliot’s hollow men I can give the void an illusion of meaning.
First and foremost, it must be said, Brandy, my father’s St Bernard, was a racist dog. That is one of the ways the story starts.
My own anecdotes are all beginnings, and, if I ever venture to start them, I realise they aren’t going anywhere mid-sentence. It’s not the feeling of running out of train tracks; It’s the feeling that there never was a train. It’s in these awful moments that I perceive the eyes of my audience glazing over and mine do too. I wish the glazing to be sticky, thick and sweet. To distract. To distract from the fact that I have nothing. I hope for my story to be snatched away from me, while we clean the yummy from our eyes, to be completed by another. It’s the opposite of wanting to catch the pass-the-parcel. It’s the conviction that someone else could finish it better. Help me complete it, I yearn. Save me from myself. I’m incomplete. I don’t have the stamina for the end.
My aunt had Brandy put-down while my father was out of the country. That’s another way the story starts. And ends.
Privately, I’ve always found it hard thinking of Brandy as a boy-dog. My associations with his name are markedly gendered in the other direction. The other Brandys I’ve known of are a namesake of an alcohol-induced conception and a pop-singer. What dog-Brandy has in common with the other two Brandys, apart from his name, is that I never met him. He died before I was born. His end was before my beginning. Brandy-the-alcohol-tribute was a girl from another school who I was told about at a party. The drunk girl regaling me with this information had blond ringlets that bounced as she trumpeted the origin of her friend’s name and that of her sister, Midori. The drunk girl’s name was Bailey. She was drinking Baileys. I have no understanding of whether this story was a defence of her choice of liquor or an attempt to conjure some illusion of solidarity in numbers. I wasn’t drinking. This makes people nervous.
Later that night my friend, Catherine, would get too drunk on peach shnappes, pass out and leave a gluggy trail of drool on somebody’s mattress. I called her parents. I helped her into the car. The story left me there.
Brandy left Scotland for Malawi in a custom-made dog box, “They don’t make them that big”, and took an “instant disliking” to the indigenous population. This makes me feel uncomfortable. Having been disowned for his potential to eat sheep, Brandy turned his aggression towards ‘the other’.
Brandy was not always my father’s dog. He wasn’t there at the beginning. Dad was asked to take him on because his original owner’s neighbours were farmers. The farmers said that if Brandy killed a sheep, they would shoot him. I imagine these farmers as sensible people who looked on with horror at their neighbours ill-considered choice of dog. Sensible and practical. I don’t believe they were bluffing. Brandy’s owners were out of their depth. They did not like to be reminded of their neighbour’s practical guns and were secretly relieved that they would not have to maintain this growing mountain of a dog, so they found a man who would love him and he was shipped to Africa.
If I am not telling the story, if it has been mercifully taken over by my father or my mother, at this point I will ask, “Wasn’t Brandy hot in Malawi?” Somehow the answer, “No”, always slips from my grasp because it doesn’t seem possible that 100kg of dog could be happy in Africa. Yet, apparently, apart from his dislike of Africans, Brandy thrived. He was fed on grain and vegetables, given regular rabies injections and slept a lot. A good dog life. The way Dad tells it, Brandy was pretty well-behaved, not a sheep killer but a gentle giant. At least, he was good after Dad punched him in the face. Dad broke his hand but established himself as top dog.
My mother only met Brandy once but, because there is a photo of her and the dog, I think of Brandy as her dog too. Mum is so beautiful in the photo, neatly dressed, red hair vibrant, fresh faced. The dog reaches her shoulder, clearly twice her weight. She is standing stiffly, not out of fear but because it’s cold. They aren’t in Africa. It’s after Brandy was moved back to Scotland to live with my Nan and aunt, when he was past his sheep-eating prime. I only recently discovered that this was because Dad’s first marriage broke up. The photo is of Mum meeting the nearest thing Dad had, at that point, to a child. Many years later she would inherit my dog after the break-up of my marriage. She is wearing white socks. Maybe she hadn’t realised how cold it would be.
Brandy’s end is simple and off-stage. And, as with the beginning, Dad wasn’t present. Brandy had to be put down because he had developed epilepsy. 100kgs of epileptic St Bernard was not something my Nan and aunt could face. They were upset about it, they told my father. They were upset about it still by the first time I heard the story. All involved would assure themselves, “But 11 years is a good life for a big dog”. Nobody wants to terminate someone else’s beloved pet.
Much later, both Nan’s and my aunt’s deaths would happen off-stage for Dad as well. He would be in a different country, again, too much water away.