Fair warning, readers! This is a sad one. Definitely tugs at your heartstrings. Sometimes better than than the boy meets girl stories are the man meets best pal dog stories, and here’s one of’ ‘em for ya by the late, great Brian Jacques, author of Redwall, a reading from his Jakestown radio program on BBC Merseyside. Have a listen and a read…and get those tissues ready!
Bobby, by Brian Jacques
Now, looking back, he could remember the first time
He had ever seen Bobby.
It was a bitter winter night in min-January.
He’d been coming home from the pub,
The snow was being driven into drifts by a howling wind.
Ice made the pavement slippery underfoot.
It wasn’t a fit night for man nor beast to be out in.
Yeah, that’s when he’d first met Bobby.
The dog had followed him, slinking and cringing,
Always about ten feet behind him,
Right from outside the alehouse, along the main road, and up the street
He stopped and turned to get a good look at it.
It was only a puppy, really, about four months old.
Its tail and ears drooped in the wind-driven whiteness.
It wasn’t a particularly good looking hound, either.
A little mongrel, no pedigree,
Just the usual 57 varieties.
Probably it had been given to some kid as a Christmas present
And slung out unwanted, when the holidays were over.
He’d stared at the dog; the dog had stared back at him.
It took a pace backward, as if expecting him
To aim a boot at it.
Poor little beggar.
You could have played “Rule Britannia” on its ribs.
“Here ya are, come on old fellah.”
He crouched in the snow, held out his hand
To the freezing, half-starved pup.
It hesitated a second.
Then, as if it sensed everything would be okay,
It shook its head, wagged its drooping tail,
And trotted slowly up to him.
He patted it, and scratched behind its ears as he talked.
“Hello there, old fellah- where you from?
Been slung out, have ya?”
The puppy came closer into him,
As if he could protect it
From the cold, hostile world.
That was a lot of years ago now.
He’d taken the puppy home with him,
And named it Bobby.
Not for any particular reason, other than
It looked like a Bobby,
And always came when the name was called.
It was a good little dog,
Quite clean, and didn’t need a lot of looking after, either.
One decent meal a day and a bowl of water-
Oh, and a saucer of tea every morning-
Proper ole fashioned, Bobby was.
Always liked his saucer of tea with his dad.
You know, when you come to think of it, he thought,
It wasn’t much.
A bit of scoff, and a drink.
Somewhere warm and dry for it to kip every night.
But the returns he got from that dog Bobby!
It had been a companion
Always ready to wag its tail and be stroked.
And if he ever felt depressed or fed up,
There was Bobby, gazing at him with those
Soft, gentle dog’s eyes,
The old tail going twenty to the dozen.
It never failed to cheer him up.
Bobby was his mate.
Someone he could tell his troubles and his dreams to.
But Bobby had been dead about six months now.
They’d been inseparable, went everywhere together.
What was it that fellah had said in the pub?
“Dogs are only animals and they haven’t got a soul.”
He smiled to himself, and thought
Just shows how much that fellah knows,
Brian Jacques had a gift for creating a voice for his characters, not only in his Redwall series, but also in his poetry. And sometimes that voice was quite striking in its forlornness, such as the character of McCann in “Plonky,” a drunk wandering Paradise St. in Liverpool, England, circa 1970s. Give it a read and listen here.
Plonky, by Brian Jacques
Even the cheapest wine was expensive now
McCann held the bottle out at arm’s length
So he could read the label without putting his specs on
“Fine Olde Port Style Ruby Wine-
Produce of More Than One Country” it said
Two pretty young girls passing along Paradise Street
Saw the old man holding the bottle out.
They both laughed. One of them said “Cheers!”
McCann stared at them
And to discourage further familiarities
He stuffed the bottle back into his Mac pocket
Horked noisily, and spat on the pavement.
The girls hurried off back to work
As he closed his eyes, and leaned back on the bench,
The dappled Shadows from the bushes behind giving
His face a leprous look.
Plonk. Where’d had he first heard the word?
1944. On the front steps of that little Italian church-
What was it called now?- Santa Therese de Liscious-
He could remember the statue outside.
It was a lady, dressed as a nun, with a face like a Madonna.
Sargent Thomas had translated the Latin inscription
Beneath the statue for the benefit
Of McCann and his mates.
“After my death I will let fall a shower of roses.”
The soldiers had laughed and sang “April Showers.”
They bought rough red wine from a man
Who sold it off the back of a cart.
“Chianti del Classico” it was called.
One of the lads from McCann’s regiment
Said it was only plonk.
McCann stood up and swayed as he took out his bottle again.
“Plonk! It’s all only plonk!”he told the whole of Paradise Street,
Aloud, with his arms stretched wide.
Nobody was taking any notice,
So he broke out into song.
“St. Therese Of The Roses”
The panda car stopped at the curb alongside,
And he found himself looking into the face
Of a young policeman.
Immediately, McCann straightened up
And threw the constable what he imagined
Was a smart military salute.
“It’s s’alright. S’Alright, Sarge! Just goin’…” he mumbled,
As he pocketed the bottled and retreated
Along Paradise Street in the direction of Duke Street
The young copper watched him go,
Shook his head in disgust
And climbed back into the car.
“Another plonky,” he said to his mate.
McCann wandered aimlessly, staggering
And talking to himself.
People avoided him, and crossed over the road
When they saw him coming.
McCann didn’t worry, he didn’t care.
Let ‘em move out of the way for him.
He fought and bled for the likes of them.
Yeah- fought and bled!
I caught shrapnel in me left leg
And a silver plate in me skull.
Let ‘em move out of the way!
He wished he hadn’t sold his medals-that’ve showed ‘em!
Oh he still had Marty’s medals, but…
They belonged to Marty, not him.
I’ll bet he didn’t get much plonk out in Korea-
That was where Marty was buried- by the 39th Parallel.
Betcha no one even remembers that-
The 39th parallel.
That was where his son, Corporal Martin McCann was buried.
It was never the same after that.
Mary left him, and went to live
With her sister and her mother.
Plonky, she’d called him.
Said he lost all his self-respect,
Especially when she caught him taking the rent money
Out to the bars on the dresser.
He hadn’t seen her since.
Probably wouldn’t recognize her now.
McCann looked around at the doorway he was leaning against.
It was a church.
Let’s go in and ‘ave a look around.
He liked churches.
The parish priest was in the vestry,
Composing Sunday’s sermon
When the little altar boy walked in.
“Hey, Father- there’s some old man out there-
Sitting by St. Therese’s statue
And he’s drinking out of a bottle and singing
“St. Therese of the Roses.”
Ah, that’s alright John, he often does that,
He’s only a plonky ya know.
There’s no harm in it.
Another great poetry reading by the late great Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, and host of Jakestown on BBC Radio Merseyside. Here Jacques waxes lyrically and nostalgically on the old “do’s” (street parties) from back in the day in Liverpool. Makes you want to break out a few Guinness and some Sinatra. Take a listen and have a read:
The Do by Brian Jacques
When houses were houses
And streets were streets.
The cobbles, and dogs, and kids,
And washing lines piled up with jammers and sheets,
And cats looked in bins or out beds.
Remember the do’s on a Saturday night.
And the alehouses closed at ten.
Jars out the window, and a bob for the light.
Of course, families were closer then.
You could hear the lads crossing over the road:
“Hey Billie, will ya carry that crate?”
Stout Brown and Mild
Sharing the load.
“Which house is the do in, mate?”
“Which house is the do in? Are you off your head?
The one with the door opened wide!
You know Tony’s sister? Well it’s her Uncle Fred’s.
Pick that ale up and get inside!”
The back kitchen set up like the Iron Lung Bar.
There’s butties, and ribs, and shanks.
“Come in, son, and take us as we are.
“I’ll have some ribs and a Guinness, thanks.”
In the front parlor, the Joanna’s playing loud.
There’s snogging on the stairs up the lobby,
And the woman next door’s shouting
“Hey you crowd, stop that now or I’ll call the bobby!”
“Come in, girl, you’re one of ours!
Two to each side and no spittin’!
The bobby’s been here the last two hours,
He’s helpin’ me gran with the knittin’!”
Big Paddy’s singin’ the Rosa of Tralee,
Mrs. Jones murders Ave Maria.
Mr. Brady plays the banjo he brought home from sea.
I think the whole street is here.
“Heart of my Heart” and “Barefoot Days”
“There’s no work in the mornin’, ya know!”
“I’ll be Loving You Always”
“Allo, Queen, how’s your Joe?”
“Hey ya, gerroff, will ya have a dance?”
“It’s as good as the Grafton in here!”
“Someone spilt ale on ‘Arry’s best pants.”
“Better get him another beer!”
“You’re Cheatin’ Heart Will Tell On You.”
Are you watching the telly tonight?
Or would you sooner be at a do
The ole do’s.
Hey, they were all right.
Brian Jacques not only wrote the Redwall series, he was also a poet. He would occasionally do poetry readings over music which he would present on his radio show Jakestown on BBC Merseyside.
I figured the old boy’s in heaven now, so I drummed up a slideshow of Brian with his reading of his poem “Heaven Is.” Text of the poem is below the video. It’s a brilliant, upbeat, blue-collar vision of what’s beyond the pearly gates…
Heaven Is by Brian Jacques
I imagine heaven to be a place
Where old ladies go ‘round
And employers roam ‘round in a mob
Grabbing older people and sayin’
“Hey lad, ya wanna job?”
Where you can walk in a pub
And sit yourself down
Anytime after half-nine;
And the manager shouts
At twenty to eleven
“No worries! There’s plenty of time!”
Heaven’s a place
Where pensioners have cottages;
Where they’re allowed to own
Ten dogs or ten cats.
And only city planners
Have to live in high-rise flats
Heaven is a place
Where they don’t have Mondays;
And it only rains late at night.
And when two people argue
They always win…
‘cause it turns out, that both of them’s right.
Heaven’s a place
With no alarm clocks;
And twenty seven miles
Of working docks.
Where nobody has to pay fines
For leaving their cars on two yellow lines.
Where both teams are at Wembley every week,
And the kids don’t give their mothers no cheek.
Where everyone has a deep freeze
Full of lobsters and steaks;
And the poor people
Have no bread to eat…‘cause the cupboards are full of cakes!
Yes, I reckon heaven must be a place
Where the street parties last for a year;
And the people say
“Come and sit down, lad.
It doesn’t matter
If you’re not from ‘round here.”
Two years ago today, author Brian Jacques (pronounced “Jakes”), creator of the Redwall series, passed away. He authored 22 books of series in all, which featured the mice, otters, moles, hedgehogs, squirrels, and hares of Mossflower Country and Salamandastron, and their epic struggles against all manner of villainy. Inspired by the memory and actions of their resident spiritual guide, Martin the Warrior, the goodbeasts of Redwall strived to create a place of peace in a hostile world full of rats, weasels, stouts, and other vermin. Readers come away from reading Redwall with the satisfaction of having read a darn good yarn, full of feasting, fighting, riddles, cliff hangers, and songs.
I got addicted to these tales not too long ago, after getting sick and tired of contemporary “literary fiction ,” with its typical loner protagonists and navel-gazing ruminations. I, like Brian Jacques at point, was wondering “What happened to the magic?!”
Jacques went off and wrote his own magic, and the gift he receives is in the giving, and with all the humility in the world. As he once stated it:
“I don’t worry so much about the prizes for books, the accolade for me is the kids. And the librarians, who’ve had an education, who are looking at a scalawag, who’s conned his way in—an exlongshoreman, ex-seaman, ex-truckdriver, who’s suddenly popped up as an author — and they say, “Oh, Mr. Jacques, we love your books.” I think, isn’t that nice, here are these people with this great education speaking to me as if I’m somebody—it’s a big thing.”
I thank him for creating magic and sharing it with the rest of the world, especially late thirtysomethings like myself who need some reminding. His death two years ago today left many heartbroken. But take heart, I think Jacques would say: join me anytime between the pages of Redwall.
I had to say goodbye to someone close to me today.
But first let me tell you how we met. And it begins with Dante.
Not the poet, but the dog. A sweet rambunctious lab mix my wife who my wife and I couldn’t resist as he wagged his tail furiously from his holding pen. We were shopping at Publix, and a no kill shelter had set up a makeshift adoption center outside the store and was taking donations.
We brought Dante home to what was then a tiny little duplex and proceeded over the next two weeks to understand that dogs are simply furry human babies in disguise. Crating this puppy for most of the day, we felt, just wasn’t right, and when I came home one day to find my cat Cleo backed into a corner hissing her brains out, Dante wagging his tail like it was a propeller, tongue lolling, cheerfully barking after escaping his crate somehow, and Cleo’s well placed scratches all over his face, I said to myself “This isn’t working. He deserves better.”
My wife and I get attached easily to animals, so it was with much sadness that we took Dante back to the no kill shelter. Arriving, Dante jumped out of the car and began cavorting around with his fellow pups. The woman running the shelter, a fat smiling woman in a pink flowered sundress, with eyes just to the left of crazy, asked “Wanna see the kitties?”
We walked over to a crate supported by a couple wooden boxes. “Three left. Yeah, that’s the mother- we call her Abby- and there’s her two kittens, Weebles and Wobbles.”
Abby regarded us from a sleek tabby face and disdainful green eyes. Her daughter Weebles gazed curiously from a small black face with a white mustache. Wobbles- well, Wobbles was wobbling. He tried looking at us, but his head jiggled back and forth enough to make him lose focus within a few seconds.
“Yeah,” the woman explained, “Got his head stuck in the bars of his crate a while back, and now his head won’t stop doing that. ‘Member the toys from way back when? Little egg shaped people? “Weebles wobble but they won’t fall down.” Ha! Kinda fits, unfortunately. He’s a precious one, but I’d like to leave him with his Mama a bit more. Watcha think of Weebles?
My wife, tears still running down her face from the pain of giving back Dante, picked up Weebles, who started licking her thumb. “Cool,” I thought, petting her. She seemed like a nice, laid back kitty.
I knew once she was in Erin’s arms, that kitten wasn’t going anywhere but back to our house. So I turned to the shelter owner and said “She will have a good home with us.” And with a donation to the shelter made, and a couple of papers signed, we went back to the car, Weebles in tow.
Getting in the car, we sat for a few minutes, letting our new family member settle in Erin’s lap. “I’m glad we got her,” I said, “But Weebles?”
Doesn’t seem to fit, my wife agreed.
The name just meandered across my mind, amidst directions home, getting the new one stuff to eat at the store…
“How about Suzie?”
“Yeah, she looks like a Suzie.”
“Okay, sounds good.”
In hindsight, I wish naming my son had been that easy…
Driving home, I glanced over and saw something that I will never forget. Erin still had tears in her eye, and I watched as Suzie looked up at Erin, then over to me, then back at Erin. And with a confidence bordering on the absolute, with a look in her eye that said “I own these people,” she lifted her paw and began washing herself, content with her new surroundings.
That was about thirteen years ago. I have never had a cat give so much love and joy as a pet. So when her tumor developed, it was quite hard to face the fact she would not be with us always.
But she passed away peacefully in my arms at the vet tonight, her battle over. Our vet, (the best vet in the world), Dr. Hayes, offered to say a prayer over her, and together we thanked God for the gift of her life to my family. It was hard to say goodbye, but after she passed, I could still feel the vibrations of her purring on my lap, as if it was one of the hundreds of times she had fallen asleep on my lap.