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A twist in the tail

Last year was a big one in our lives, full of serious stuff like cancer, strokes and loss. In short, it was one big interruption in the childhood of my kids, so once the big, heavy stuff was out of the way I felt it only fair that my adulthood should be interrupted by childish things, namely a dog.

For years, my kids had begged us, vowed to us, committed to scrubbing floors, all for the ultimate gift of a dog. I would look at them knowingly, smile at them benignly, nod patronisingly but never, not for one second, did I afford them any illusion of hope of ever securing a dog. It was just not on the agenda. Nor would it be. Ever.

I shamelessly, and without one ounce of guilt, ignored their reasoning, promises and entreaties, and though they were imaginative and inventive, the decision was made long before the negotiation, if you could call a one-sided conversation a negotiation. We were never going to get a dog.

Not that I have anything against dogs. I don't. Absolutely nothing. Sure, didn't I grow up with a dog. Indeed, I loved her dearly.

I even have a vague recollection of her toilet training. Not that I had anything to do with it. I just remember coming down in the morning to newspapers that had been strategically placed throughout the kitchen in an effort to capture any leakages or accidents, but God forbid that I ever actually had to clean up her business or dispose of anything offensive to the nose or gut.

The most I remember is coming home to that unconditional love and rapture that only a dog can deliver to even the most uninterested of masters. I would pat her, put my face in her coat and then get on with the rest of my life as only the self-obsessed teenager can do.

I cannot deny it was a nice addition to my childhood, but I took it for granted much as I did a comfortable bed and a hot meal.

One might think I would generously pass this indulgence on to my own kids; the joy and the uncompromising adoration of a brown-eyed, four-legged friend but, to my biased mind, the kids were grand and, sure, what they didn't know they wouldn't miss.

What fuelled this selfishness, you may well ask (for I asked myself in the shaded corners of life)? The answer wasn't difficult or complicated. In essence, there was just one mundane reason, but nonetheless a powerful and overbearing one -- the obsession with my house.

Now before we go any further, I would like to clarify: my home is not a glass cube with white floors and white furniture. Indeed, my house is not a grand house, it is not an exciting house, it is not even an original house. Yet the purchase of my house, after my choice of partner and the birth of my kids, has been the best decision in my life. More than all that, my house -- and this is very important to me -- is clean.

And therein lies the crux. You see, I like that about it. Clean. I am sure there are many like-minded people who would readily understand my aversion to owning a dog.

This was my world.

Then, life happened and the perfect order that once upon a time dictated my contentment no longer made the cut.

My epiphany -- and I use this word loosely in an effort to make a long story short -- came after the third glass of wine on a Saturday, which is dangerous territory for me. When I shared it with my one and only -- himself a dedicated animal lover -- he advised that I hold off any declarations, think about the poo and decide in the morning. He was confident that the epiphany would turn out to be fleeting.

But this was one of those rare occasions when he was wrong.

The next morning, I make a promise that I didn't utter to anybody. It was a commitment made to myself -- when all the bad stuff goes away, I told myself, we will get the kids a dog.

Six months later, the bad stuff had gone away and the day of reckoning was nigh. I went online and met not just my destiny but all of ours -- a golden retriever, 12 weeks old.

When I told them that we were the imminent owners of a new pup, we were confronted with a hyperventilating 10-year-old, a silently shocked 12-year-old and a 15-year-old who thought this was all a dream, as he had written us off as a family who would never own a dog.

In all the Christmases and birthdays we have lived through, and there have been some special ones, never have we seen such a reaction. I could have felt guilty observing this acute joy, disbelief and wonder, but as the prize was being delivered, I decided not to go there. We were getting a dog.

It took us nine hours of uninterrupted deliberation to decide her name and this was before we even got her: Riley. Note the spelling. This is the American version which justifies everything -- ie, giving a male name to a female dog. It was the only name we could all agree on and, when we finally met her, we found it fit just perfectly.

The name that is.

For everything else to fit perfectly takes a little more. A little more effort. A little more time. A little more adjustment. And a whole lot of mental adaptation.

A dog is hard on a house. She is cute, beautiful, affectionate and adorable but she is goddamn hard on a house. She chews everything. She ruins everything. She trained fast but she farts everywhere. She sheds constantly, but it is the dust she produces that confounds me.

Her smell is undeniable and her enthusiasm displayed forcibly in the wag of her tail has made me childproof the house all over again. She is hard work.

But then she virtually talks to me. She gives out to me if I leave her alone too long. She makes for good company, snuggling up at my feet as I work and her efforts to suck my face makes me laugh in a way I have not done since childhood.

To see my teenage son, so often uncommunicative and too cool for words, roll around the kitchen floor talking nonsense to her; to observe my 10-year-old giving her orders hinting at the kind mother she will one day become; to smile at my absent-minded middle child responsibly fill her water bowl and to see my lover love another with such tenderness makes the whole imperfection of the thing feel altogether just right.

It would be nice as far as our family is concerned to view 2010 as the year that was not about all the bad stuff, but as the year that Riley came to live with us. The year when the old order was replaced with a new one, the good and the bad, and the year when we were all got to receive unconditional love, when even the most unaffectionate of us became tactile and gushing and when I reached a new conclusion that, next to my partner for life and the children we planned, I rather think Riley has been the best decision ever!

And I am putting this ahead of the house, which is really saying something.

Thank you Riley.

Weekend Magazine