My sister, Michelle, rang me this morning from London: a trans-Atlantic call filled with sobbing tears and wails. It seems that in a fit of misguided good intentions, our Mother had spring cleaned and sent Michelle a childhood photo album.
“It was filled with pictures of Prince!” my sister hiccupped between heaving sobs. And just like that, the ghosts of the past all came flooding back, joyful and painful all at once, almost tactile in their intensity.
This is my first memory: I am three years old and my sister is five and we’re playing in our garden with Prince. We’re laughing as he pushes us into the grass, jumping back and forth with a wide stupid grin on his face. My face buried in the newly shorn grass, I inhale the warm green. This is also the first memory I have of being completely happy.
In the distance, our Mother sits on the porch gossiping with her sister as they pluck a huge bowl of bean sprouts for lunch. Their low murmur floats across the lawn, washing over us as we lie on our backs, the thick leaves prickling our exposed arms and legs. High above, a dome of sky, the colour of crushed sapphires. Then, Prince looms over us and pushes his nose into Michelle’s face. It’s wet and unbearably ticklish and she shrieks in laughter.
When my father first brought Prince home, Michelle had just turned four and it was her birthday present. I have no memory of the event; the faded photographs that Michelle scanned and emailed to me show a small brown bundle of fur lit by two soft moist eyes. The pet shop claimed he was a pedigreed Alsatian but Father had his doubts. Prince did not have a shred of aggression in him, barking only at mealtimes when we emerged from the kitchen with his food-bowl.
“He’s a useless guard-dog,” my Grandmother announced the moment she laid eyes on him. “Wherever did you find him?” she asked my father. She, of course, fell in love with him and, for the rest of her life, she would fish dog biscuits from her handbag.
By the time he was one year old, Prince towered over us. Standing up, we came up to his ears. He followed us everywhere as we wandered around the house, poking our heads into the kitchen for a snack or just sitting on the porch, drowsy with the tropical heat, him lying on the cool slate panting with effort while Michelle and I lay our heads on either side of him. And when we started school, each afternoon, he would always be there waiting at the gate, ears and tail alert, eyes searching the school bus and then doing a little dance when we got off.
Another photograph: he’s just been washed, his fur freshly brushed. Michelle had borrowed Mother’s hairdryer and blow-dried him for an hour till he had the canine equivalent of an Afro.
“Oh God!” Mother exclaimed when she saw her daughter’s handiwork.
“Smile!” Father shouted as we threw our arms around Prince, who immediately bared his teeth in a wide grin. For a dog, he was incredibly vain, recognizing the camera and always smiling on cue.
Prince died of cancer at the age of nine. He outlived my Grandmother who, even as she died, kept asking if she still had a pack of dog biscuits in her handbag. Father buried Prince in the garden under the Angsana tree where Prince had spent so much time happily digging up the lawn till there was only a big sandy patch. “What is that stupid dog looking for?” Father shouted after Prince had dug up a big hole, a spot that, ironically, years later, would be his final resting place.
Michelle spent the better part of a year moping, breaking down in floods of tears whenever she saw a puppy or, God forbid, another Alsatian straining on its leash as it dragged its owner for a run. I don’t think she ever recovered, which may explain her hesitancy around my beloved adopted mongrel dog, Pooch, whenever she comes to visit me.
And now the photographs and a phone call.
“He was so cute!” Michelle said. “Remember how he followed us everywhere? How he’d just sit outside the toilet door and wait.” Here, she paused, her voice trailing. “It was like he had all the time in the world.”
When I finally hanged up the phone, I picked up Pooch’s leash and rattled it to attract his attention. He came running, tail wagging, ever happy for an excuse to go for a walk. I stooped down to give him a big hug, and as he squirmed, I whispered into his ear, “Poochie, Prince says Hello.”